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When does Compassion Lead to Action?

We all get frequently confronted with news pictures or situations about people in need, with an open or hidden appeal to help. Where do you act? Where do you withdraw? Where does a “compassion fatigue” set in?

In their new blog “VoxBlog online debates“, AlertNet (the humanitarian branch of Reuters press agency: alerting humanitarians to emergencies) writes:

“Reading your morning paper, two articles catch your eye. One is about a new study that finds almost 4 million people have died in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. The other tells the story of “little Mary”, a 12-year-old Ugandan girl whose lips were cut off by rebel fighters. Which story makes you react?”

They take up the discussion from an interesting article by Paul Slovic in “Foreign Policy“. A short extract:
“A recent study I conducted with Deborah Small of the University of Pennsylvania and George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University found that donations to aid a starving 7-year-old child in Africa declined sharply when her image was accompanied by a statistical summary of the millions of needy children like her in other African countries. The numbers appeared to interfere with people’s feelings of compassion toward the young victim.
Other recent research shows similar results. Two Israeli psychologists asked people to contribute to a costly life-saving treatment. They could offer that contribution to a group of eight sick children, or to an individual child selected from the group. The target amount needed to save the child (or children) was the same in both cases. Contributions to individual group members far outweighed the contributions to the entire group… When writer Annie Dillard was struggling to comprehend the mass human tragedies that the world ignores, she asked, “At what number do other individuals blur for me?” In other words, when does “compassion fatigue” set in? Our research suggests that the “blurring” of individuals may begin as early as the number two.”
(Paul Slovic studies risk and decision-making and is professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. )

When I’m being flooded by calls for help or donations, I sometimes ask myself, where does compassion lead me – or others – to action? With certain themes I have a clear decision, but there remains a blurring area, where to help – and do it. Beyond the individual decision there remains a general impulse of good will, even though physical action is only possible in certain situations.


A swami begging in front of a temple in Simhachalam, India.

One Response to “When does Compassion Lead to Action?”

  1. Douglas Gilbert Says:

    There are degrees of identification and survival instincts. Bonding makes us loyal to family first. Then ethnic group and country. Those who seem similar to our own personality, strivings, sufferings and experiences. Immediacy and level of abstraction is a factor: a person who is hit by a car in front of me, who bleeds, and is assumed innocent, has a higher priority than a person in a newspaper or on the tv news. The greater the empathy, the greater the action. The greater the identification with another, the greater the possibility that ego extension can make for a need for an enveloping preservation. It could have been, or could be me, and as I see myself in another, I wish to help the extension of myself — compassion for my extended self. We can not smell a picture of a rose and might not buy one sight unseen, but could buy one on the street on an impulse if the fragrance and look is right. There is the cynicism about any organization. Organizations have been collecting money for years and yet the problems seem intractable and poverty and suffering continues. The political leaders and elites of poor countries seem to steal most of the money that is contributed by charities. The public relations campaigns have gotten to be distrusted. A lot of people when they hear that they “can feed a child on 10 cents a day, are tempted to travel to the poor country themselves and find a child at random and say, “here, my child, here’s one hundred dollars, and now you can live for a year…” Who would rather let 1,000 children barely survive, instead of see ONE child survive and be totally happy. We are looking for a COMPLETE life for our surrogate child, not keeping alive a thousand suffering ones who live a little longer, merely eating but never in joy and creativity, expressing their true selves.
    Weeding Out
    Janjaweed’s fleeing victims
    stopped in a camp
    for a chat

    A peacekeeper listened
    for awhile
    to tales of genocide
    from refugees of Darfur

    Slaughters on memory pause
    too starved to indulge grief for
    the dignitary just yet,
    a drudgery one
    asked why the UN worker cried

    Bad news through Khartoum —
    my child watching cartoons
    sends e-mail that
    the dog died

    Melamine* from China
    supporter of Sudan
    did the canine in

    Don’t they eat dogs in China
    the woman of dead child says

    The worker is insulted,
    has lost her appetite for politics

    Oil for China
    and a veto of sanctions.
    Khartoum is happy, and
    flies in weapons
    for the final solution,
    but politely
    *Melamine, a chemical derived from coal was found in pet food that killed dogs and cats. It is used in China as a make-believe protein that has no nutritional value. See: “In China, Additive To Animals’ Food Is An Open Secret,” New York Times, April 30, 2007, pp. A1, A8, by David Barboza and Alexei Barrionuevo.
    — Douglas Gilbert,
    Free Verse Poetry

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