Common Understanding and Practice of Compassion and Responsibility

The Collins Dictionary defines compassion as “a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another.” Charity is defined as the “giving of help, money, food etc. to those in need.” It can be seen from these definitions that compassion is perceived as an act involving someone or some organisation doing something for the less fortunate. And the way that compassion is commonly practiced today is that those who are perceived to be underpriviledged, disadvantaged or needy are offered financial and pastoral support and care. Given this perspective, the catch cry is for the government to provide more and more funding and intervention to alleviate the suffering of these groups of people.

As for responsibility, today whenever this is mentioned, what often comes to mind is its counterpart, rights—individual rights, indigenous rights, parental rights and so forth. There is a tendency to treat rights and responsibility as disparate phenomena. For instance, in Australia, the federal government’s attempt to reform the welfare system by requiring unemployed people and single parents to put back something into the community by taking up voluntary and community work has met with the cry that the government is trying to reform welfare payments on the cheap (O’Loughlin, March 28, 2000, The Sydney Morning Herald). It would appear that it is considered politically incorrect to make compassion and responsibility reciprocal, or as the government describes it, based on “mutual obligations.”

Given this current practice, compassion and responsibility have tended to be regarded as a unilateral act flowing from the giver to the recipient. From this perspective, the world is seen as divided between between “the haves” and “the have-nots,” “the fortunate” and “the less fortunate.” What is often overlooked is the psychological impact on the recipient.

Another View of Compassion and Responsibility for the New Millennium

There is no question that in some situations these acts of compassion and ways of responding are necessary. Additionally, they have the effect of making the recipient feel cared for, and the giver feeling that he or she has given something back to humanity and to society. However, if we look beyond these good feelings and immediate gratification and examine the impact on the recipients, we might uncover some adverse psychological consequences.

The recipients could come to rely on this source for relief and abdicate their own responsibility for a more appropriate solution. This has the psychological effect of entrenching those that are being assisted in their positions of vulnerability and reinforcing their sense of learned helplessness. Consequently, personal motivation and aspirations in getting out of this cycle could be reduced, resulting in a loss of dignity, self esteem and learned helplessness.

While acts of charity may make the givers feel good that they are doing something for the less fortunate, intervening compassion is not genuine compassion, and neither is it responsible, as it can have the ultimate effect of making the other person more dependent and negates personal responsibility. As one Australian aboriginal leader, Noel Person notes, “the poisonous welfare system has disempowered and turned many of his community into ‘drunken parasites’ as a result of the money for nothing principle” (O’Loughlin).

Which brings me to the concept which I have developed and termed as “respond-ability.” The crux of responsibility involves the notion of respond-ability, i.e., the ability to respond appropriately and skillfully. This means that our responsibility lies in being aware of what unique response is called for in each unique situation. So the important question is “How do I respond appropriately to this particular situation.” It involves taking the responsibility to act judiciously, as opposed to reacting from habitual tendencies. Sometimes, this call for actions, and at other times, for restraint. In order to order to respond appropriately, we have to be mindful of what the situation really is, and learn to separate our responses to the situation from the situation itself. We need to ask ourselves—“what are the effects of our actions?” “What is an appropriate response here?”

I argue that handing out more and more passive aid to people without factoring in the psychological consequences of this kind of help on them, or requiring the adult recipients to take some reciprocal responsibility may be tantamount to contributory negligence, and not compassion on our part. It also runs the risk of promoting a paternalistic attitude and turning acts of compassion in moral crusades.

I am not suggesting that we do not help at all. Without denigrating the value of intervening care, especially in situations of economic, political and environmental hardships, what I am suggesting is that we offer more anticipatory care. We need to place greater emphasis on the recipients’ psychological needs in our desire to help and truly give back to the individual the freedom to responsibly choose how he or she wishes to live. In short, human psychology has to play a greater role in the formulation of social policies. In this way, the recipients can learn to utilise these resources to explore other possibilities, rather than rely on them as an emotional crutch.

If individuals, governments and community leaders appreciate the intimate relationship between seemingly disparate problems, for instance between poverty and personal aspirations, between empowerment and dependency, and learn to respond appropriately, they can provide a circuit breaker for the vicious cycle of learned helplessness and an erosion of human dignity that often perpetuate human suffering and social problems. In this new millennium, let us have the wisdom and the courage to bring about this break in the circuit, and exercise genuine compassion by practicing respond-ability.

Extract from Khong, B.S.L (2000) Compassion and Responsibility: Another View for the Millennium. Paper presented at the 108th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association at Washington, DC, August 2000.