Strengthening Our Compassion Muscles

We are out of shape and the people of the Sahel are paying for it. A major crisis is wreaking havoc in the Sahel region of Sub-Saharan Africa, but few people care. Even though the United Nations estimates that 18 million people are at risk of starvation , most Westerners aren’t even aware of the problem. This is in stark contrast to the 2010 Haitian earthquake crisis, during which the flood of media and financial support totaled more than $100 million in donations to Oxfam alone. In fact, the $12 million that Oxfam has received in support of the crisis in the Sahel is even significantly less than the paltry $32 million it received last year during the devastating Horn of Africa famine crisis. While financial donations don’t paint the entire picture, they do suggest that our compassion for our friends around the globe is waning. The fact that we are not only donating less money, but are also devoting less time to caring about the crisis in the Sahel suggests that compassion seems too tiring to consider, much less carry out. We are stricken with compassion fatigue.

Caring about people across the globe is tiring because it requires that we exert self-control. Social psychological research shows that doing what comes naturally to us is easy because it doesn’t require any self-control. However, whenever we make a concerted effort to engage in an activity that we would not naturally choose or to abstain from an activity that we would naturally choose, we must draw upon our limited source of self-control in order to regulate our behavior. Self-control is like a muscle – it gets tired after a lot of use. For this reason, once we run out of self-control, we have a really hard time controlling our future behavior.

One study illustrated this by seating hungry participants at a table in a room that smelled like freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. Two plates were placed on top of the table, one full of raw radishes and the other full of chocolate chip cookies. Some participants were told to eat at least 2-3 radishes while refraining from eating the cookies. Other participants were told to eat at least 2-3 cookies while refraining from eating the radishes. Next, the participants were asked to complete a difficult puzzle and the researchers measured how long each participant worked on the puzzle before giving up in frustration. The researchers found that the participants who had been asked to exercise self-control by eating radishes instead of cookies, gave up on working on the puzzle almost immediately. They had worn out their self-control muscle and had no energy or discipline to focus on the difficult puzzle. However, the participants who had eaten the cookies had not worn out their self-control muscle and were able to work on the difficult puzzle for quite a long time. Interestingly, related studies have found that chronic dieters (who are accustomed to choosing healthy foods over unhealthy foods), have no trouble choosing radishes over chocolate chip cookies and don’t need to exert much self-control in order to do so.

Due to our selfish natures and to the fact that we naturally (and devastatingly) draw us/them distinctions between us and “victims of global crises”, helping us comes naturally but helping them does not. As such, the act of choosing to devote valuable financial resources and time to caring about issues like the crisis in the Sahel is a lot like choosing to eat radishes instead of chocolate chip cookies. It’s simply easier and more natural to eat the cookies . We might be able to use our self-control muscle to summon compassionate action for one or two crises, but sooner or later, we get tired of caring. Alas, we are out of shape – one compassion workout defeats us. The good news is that even though many of us are out of shape right now, we can whip ourselves into shape. Since self-control is like a muscle, it gets stronger when we work it out. Even though many of us are experiencing compassion fatigue, we must resist the temptation to slack off and “sit this one out.” Instead, we must fight through the fatigue by engaging in compassionate action. For example, we can sign up for RSS feeds and Twitter and Facebook updates that keep us informed and engaged. We can talk to our friends, church groups, and work organizations. We can donate time and money to organizations that are on the ground in the Sahel. If we refuse to stop and rest when we experience compassion fatigue, we will strengthen our self-control muscle to the point that caring for our global family members becomes natural. When that happens, not caring will be the unnatural response that requires self-control and causes fatigue. When that day comes, the whole world will benefit.

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