Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Raising Men and Compassion




I entered my friends house for the party, the sky was now dark and another successful Race for the Cure was behind me.   As the evening progressed I found a seat sitting at her kitchen table discussing what had trandspired earlier. A white and grey-streaked haired yet youthful faced man, sitting down the table from me, asked something to the affect, “we (society) have no problem coming together for women’s causes or children’s causes, but you would hardly hear of such a thing for men and prostate cancer.” The conversation turned into teaching our boys compassion for themselves and each other, while still encouraging sympathy for female and children issues -- typically known in politics as compassion issues, or social issues.  

I find  myself reflecting on this question in my quiet moments, even now, months later.  I am raising 3 boys who will someday be men.  I only get one chance to instill and reinforce these important human values in them.

That spring turned into summer quickly, and we were on vacation with the ocean waves coming in quick and hard; the August sky foretold of the hurricane still a good distance south of where I played with my three sons along the Atlantic. For a moment, my attention was diverted to a dad with two boys, one about the same age as my oldest (near 11) and the other probably around 5. The dad was encouraging the oldest to push and shove the younger one into the strong waves that were a result of the down coast hurricane. The younger child was clearly frightened. And  I, too,  was concerned.  I gave him an “are you serious?!?” glare for a moment, he then said something about how he was making him stronger.  I just shook my head and went back to playing with my children.  Stronger?!? Perhaps fearful, less compassionate and less trusting is what came to my mind, but I kept my mouth shut.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.  We all have experienced emotional pain, or some form of suffering at some point. In Dr. James Doty, MD article in the Washington post this past March speaks about how, “It has been stated many times that survival is of the fittest, but when one reads Darwin closely this is not the case. Rather, the more accurate statement, coined by Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. and other leading social scientists, is “the survival of the kindest.”

It is thought that compassion is the means of the genes protecting themselves and making sure they made it into the next generation. Compassion is an important part  of allowing our species to be so great in number. Compassion is what allows us, as a species, to survive in times of struggle

Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at U of C, Berkleley explains the biological basis for compassion, “…Take the loose association of glands, organs, and cardiovascular and respiratory systems known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS plays a primary role in regulating our blood flow and breathing patterns for different kinds of actions. For example, when we feel threatened, our heart and breathing rates usually increase, preparing us either to confront or flee from the threat—the so-called “fight or flight” response. What is the ANS profile of compassion? As it turns out, when young children and adults feel compassion for others, this emotion is reflected in very real physiological changes: Their heart rate goes down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee, but to approach and sooth.  Then there’s oxytocin, a hormone that floats through the bloodstream. Research performed on the small, stocky rodents known as prairie voles indicates that oxytocin promotes long-term bonds and commitments, as well as the kind of nurturing behavior—like care for offspring—that lies at the heart of compassion. It may account for that overwhelming feeling of warmth and connection we feel toward our offspring or loved ones. Indeed, breastfeeding and massages elevate oxytocin levels in the blood (as does eating chocolate). In some recent studies I’ve conducted, we have found that when people perform behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—their bodies produce more oxytocin. This suggests compassion may be self-perpetuating: Being compassionate causes a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate.” (see reference below for article site)

Gail Underwood Parker, author of the blog 'Upbeats and Downbeats'  explains, "Sympathy is more than recognition. To me, empathy does not require more than dispassionately recognizing and understanding someone else's pain.  Compassion is far more. Compassion means feeling, regretting that pain, and wishing to ease that pain.  Empathy does not seem to require action, but compassion calls for, cries out for action."


When we experience compassion, our vagus nerve is activated. A well reacting vagus nerve is a good ticket our health. It calms us, it slows the heart rate  and it strengthen's our immune system. Research is suggesting  that compassion might be able to slow the aging process by lowering inflammation in the body. Inflammation is thought to be the precursor to many of our chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, etc. 

Compassion and empathy are innate within the human chemical makeup --  but some conditioned beliefs of communities and/or family culture drive many to mistrust and even at times have disdain for emotions like compassion, empathy and optimism.
Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in research on self-compassion, says, “I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line.  Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

At the beginning of her paper on  The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion   the summary  explains, "Self-compassion entails being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them. Evidence for the validity and reliability of the scale is presented in a series of studies. Results indicate that self-compassion is significantly correlated with positive mental health outcomes such as less depression and anxiety and greater life satisfaction. Evidence is also provided for the discriminant validity of the scale, including with regard to self-esteem measures." (available through Psychology Press)

Compassion is sometimes thought of as a women’s emotion.  The health benefits that a compassionate person reaps from the act of simply being can become apart of our society  if we acknowledge its importance within us and we encourage our youth toward it.

I still question how to show and teach my young boys -- who will be men before I know it -- how to be compassionate toward themselves and other males.  I try to be aware of opportunities (daily) to encourage them to be understanding of each other and themselves.  I try to be an example. Perhaps, in someway, it is selfish of me. I know this will improve their health, improve the communities they choose to settle in and protect the generations far beyond them. 

I am grateful for my dad who shows compassion by his constant drive to want to help,  and for other men like Jeff a active volunteer from our local Camp Quality (a group that helps kids with cancer remember to be kids) and Mark who started Habitate for Hope with his wife and made it their life mission to help families facing a pediatric health crisis. These are just a few I can think of off the top of my head that stand out (in my social circles) as reminders that strong men do know how to be compassionate and I'm not raising weirdos, but heroes,  if I encourage my sons to look to them, and other men like them, as examples. 

I hope to impart on my children that their health and wellness also lie within how well they treat others and themselves.