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Empathy and compassion are precious human values – but they can be diminished or even disappear because of cultural, racial, political, and religious pressure or through materialistic manipulation.
In such cases, people who used to be caring and compassionate toward each other may turn against one another.
Historically, we’ve seen this happen again and again. In the United States, the Civil War pitted brother against brother, and people who were once neighbors and friends became mortal enemies. In World War II Germany, the previous peaceful co-existence between Jews and Christians turned into terrible persecution and mass genocide of the Jewish people.
In another more recent example, the Baha’is of Iran, before the Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s, lived in relative peace among their Muslim co-citizens. However, following that revolution, due to the actions of religious leaders and clerics who spread false accusations, misinformation, and the relentless incitement of hatred, empathy and compassion among a large proportion of the populace were replaced by anger, intolerance, and persecution. On the other hand, many fair-minded people did not allow these social pressures to affect their kindness and empathy toward Baha’is.
Compassion or Domination
Whether seemingly religious, national, or tribal, the underlying motivation for the elimination of empathy and compassion among those who promote their disappearance represents a thirst for the power to dominate. The success of such attempts is made possible by the weakening of spiritual bonds in society and the emphasis on differences rather than unity. Abdu’l-Baha, in a speech he gave in New York City in 1912, attributed the weakening of those bonds to a rising tide of materialism:
Consider to what a remarkable extent the spirituality of people has been overcome by materialism so that spiritual susceptibility seems to have vanished, divine civilization become decadent, and guidance and knowledge of God no longer remain.
In this regard, Abdu’l-Baha did not solely define materialism as the desire for material things – instead, he used a much broader definition, one that views materialism as a denial of our spiritual reality through an excessive emphasis on the physical aspects of life.
Spiritually, empathy and compassion are latent capacities of each human being’s inner reality. Like seeds, unless they receive essential elements for germination such as water, sunshine, and soil, they may not grow. Like the capacity to love, empathy and compassion need to be nurtured and encouraged to blossom. If cultivation and proper attention are not available or if the ingredients turn toxic, the opposite may occur.
Studies show that in a materialistic society children may fail to develop or develop very little empathy and compassion, becoming self-centered and indulgence-seeking adults. Such individuals will more likely be indifferent to the plight of the poor, the marginalized, and the suffering. Great disparities between wealth and poverty in society functions as an indicator of a lack of concern and compassion for those in desperate need of help. On the other hand, it has been shown that one’s own suffering may awaken a sense of caring, generosity, and compassion toward those who are affected by disease or other dire crises – perhaps providing a silver lining to that suffering.
Domination and Bullying
In modern society, overloaded by the ever-present influence of technology and social media, their excesses have caused many negative consequences, especially among children and youth. One among these consequences is the prevalence of cyberbullying. Although the internet offers many benefits in society, its misuse can have serious negative results. In June of 2022 the Psychiatric News of the American Psychiatric Association reported that young adolescents who are bullied online are more at risk for suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide than others.
For example, in a study involving the participation of 10,400 US youth aged 10-13 years, researchers found that the rate of suicidality was 4.2 times higher in adolescents who were targets of cyberbullying. These researchers raised the alarm about the mental health of young adolescents stating that because, at present, adolescents spend much more time online than ever before, the negative and troubling impact of cyberbullying has increased significantly. They suggest that primary healthcare providers should routinely screen for suicide risk among adolescents who are the targets of cyberbullying activities, much as they do among individuals suffering from depression.
Scientific studies have shown that a compassionate lifestyle leads to better emotional well-being. Neuroscientists at the National Institute of Health in the United States have shown that when we give money to charity, the pleasure center of the brain is activated in the same way that it would be if we were to receive the money ourselves.
From a Baha’i perspective, living selflessly and emphasizing our human oneness can help bring about the compassionate, caring lifestyle that leads to mental, physical, and psychological health.