Last week, an old friend of mine, Arun Gandhi, came to Memphis to speak at Rhodes College on “Conscious Compassion and Commitment — Ingredients of a Peaceful Society.” Arun is well suited for this: He is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, the mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolent compassionate action.
Arun asked, “Can we really make people more compassionate?”
The talk was sponsored by the Rhodes Compassionate Campus Initiative, a unique challenge the college has undertaken to make its campus, faculty and students more compassionate. The team, led by professor of religion Dr. Mark Muesse, is planning a number of compassionate interventions.
Rhodes is perfectly suited for this effort. For two years in a row, Newsweek magazine has named Rhodes the No. 1 service-minded school in the U.S. More than 80 percent of Rhodes students are involved in some form of community service.
But how do service and compassion connect? I learned how during Arun’s discussion at Rhodes. When another human being (or any living being, for that matter) is suffering, it invokes a feeling in us. It may be pity, sympathy, empathy or compassion. How you feel matters to the other person.
Pity is acknowledging the plight of others from afar. Sympathy is feeling sorry and understanding another’s pain, yet distancing yourself from the other person. Empathy is embracing and internalizing another’s suffering, and finally compassion is having a deep desire to act to alleviate suffering. This is service.
We react differently to different people. We may pity a homeless person, sympathize with a neighbor, be empathetic towards a friend, and be compassionate toward our parent or child.
While many think it’s not possible to measure compassion because it is a warm and fuzzy feeling, we have good survey and experimental tools to measure change in a person’s compassion. For example, one study looks at the willingness of a person to give up a seat in a waiting room for a disabled individual; another is a survey of one’s compassion. Though not perfect, these tools are helpful.
In an article in The Washington Post, I wrote about compassion among students. A 2008 study of 419 medical students showed that women had twice the empathy scores of men and that scores declined during the course of medical school and clinical rotations. Another study of 209 students at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School found that empathy was maintained among third-year students who received specialized training.
The scientific literature shows that compassion can be lost but it can also be taught. We can make people — both older faculty and young students — more compassionate. Rhodes College is clearly on the right track.
The conversation on compassion in Memphis does not end with the talk by Arun Gandhi. It continues with the upcoming Gandhi King Conference on April 8-9 at the University of Memphis. Five keynote speakers will enlighten us: Tavis Smiley, host of the PBS talk show; Rev. Mike Kinman, executive director of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation; Maya Soetoro-Ng, a professor of Peace Education; Dr. Erica Chenoweth, an associate senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, Norway; and Rev. F. Willis Johnson from Ferguson, Missouri.
You can come to the conference to hear others’ ideas, and hopefully to voice yours. To register, go to GandhiKingconference.org.
Source: Commercial Appeal