I was witness to a tiff between the little boy and his nine-year-old sister.

“Nobody can know everything”, the girl declared with the authority of a big sister.

“Alexa knows everything,” the boy shot back.

“Alexa is not human. She is a machine.” the girl said.

“No, she is a person!” the boy said vehemently. And in an instant, he turned towards the device and said…

“Alexa, I love you”.

“That is nice of you to say,” replied the digital assistant.

“See!” the boy said triumphantly, “she is kind!

The child had a clear understanding of what tells apart a human from a machine! Compassion is a characteristic of humans!

Above is an excerpt from an article titled Being Human in the “Open Page” of The Hindu newspaper written by Kamala Balachandran (kamalabalachandran199@gmail.com) which got published on Sunday, 5th December 2021.

When you read something, it makes you think and form opinions based on your own personal experiences. The above incident narrated by Kamala made me explore the word “compassion”. In general, we all are compassionate and show it by saying “thank you” to people in our offices. In a restaurant or coffee shop, we hold the door for the person behind us. We encourage and motivate our subordinates/ team members. In general, we practice the art of kindness when we are in the office or in public. Isn’t it?

Are we more compassionate towards strangers and less towards our own family?

I realize it’s easy for me to show compassion to strangers, friends and coworkers and even to persons who I will never meet. But when it comes to my own family, my empathy reserves are greatly lacking. Shouldn’t it be another way around?

When I read more, I found that answer is in part found in the meaning of compassion itself. One of the keys to compassion is empathy. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who has spent two-decade studying empathy, courage, vulnerability and shame, defines empathy as the ability to take another person’s perspective, to understand and appreciate what they are feeling. We expect our loved ones to do exactly this for us.

This expectation and wish are what psychoanalysts call “self-object needs.” Humans use the responses of certain others (mostly family members) to help maintain a positive, stable and cohesive sense of who we are. At some point in every relationship, partners, parents, siblings, friends, and even children provide psychological and emotional functions for us that we cannot provide for ourselves.

Let me explain this; when your daughter proudly shows you a drawing she has made, you “aww” over it, you are providing a healthy admiring and mirroring response that will help her develop into a person with a stable and positive sense of herself. When she falls while playing and hurts her elbow or knee, you kiss her and reassure her that she’s okay and can go back and play. Knowing when your child needs soothing and when she needs to be encouraged to pick up where she left off is part of empathy.

It is natural and good to expect and need empathy from the same person who needs it from us. Partners who have built self-assurance and confidence in themselves tend to provide this empathy to each other. But when things aren’t going so well, or there’s a lot of stress, they may not provide each other with the positive feelings of being understood and being valued.

A Greek Stoic philosopher, Hierocles, described individuals as consisting of a series of circles: the first circle is the human mind, next comes the immediate family, followed by the extended family, and then the local community. Next comes the community of neighbouring towns, followed by your country, and finally the entire human race. This was the basis of the “Circle of ethics”. A hypothetical group with us at its centre. The family is the first circle around us. We care for them sometimes more than ourselves. In early societies, the circle of empathy stopped at the family ring.

Circle of Empathy

Circle of empathy is a good indicator to see how accepting or discriminatory we are of others. A stranger, an acquaintance or even a work colleague isn’t part of that crucial circle that involves feeling good about yourself in relation to the other person, so you can be empathic to them. They are separate from you and you don’t expect them to meet your needs without your having to explain what you need.

The key to the whole lack of empathy problem in families is when we expect our loved ones to know what we need without our having to explain ourselves, and without our having to give them anything back. When this doesn’t happen, we become frustrated and slowly unempathic towards them.

Psychological health is the ability to find someone who can provide you with the self-object functions that you need in order to feel good. When you can find empathy for your loved one, they will return it back to you. And that’s what makes it possible to be as compassionate to a loved one as you are to a stranger.

If you look at the circle of empathy again, “SELF” is at the core of empathy, it’s hard to practice but instead of relying on family for the self-object needs, we should be responsible for the happiness in our own lives.

Along with a world full of strangers, let’s have empathy for our loved ones and more importantly for ourselves. It’s all about acceptance and bringing down those barriers.

Have a beautiful life!