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The Day a Picture Woke Us From Our Compassionate Sleep

03/09/2015 16:07 BST | Updated 03/09/2016 10:59 BST

On Thursday 3 September, newspaper front pages across Europe pictured the body of dead three-year-old boy washed up on a shore. As many commentators agree, the photograph has the power to universally galvanise emotions, cutting through our dissociation from the enormous suffering of those who seek to flee from the terrors in their own lands and try to find some security and safeness in ours.

Why, we may ask, does is it take a picture of a dead child to wake us from our compassionate sleep? One reason is that we are biologically more sensitive to the suffering of a child than we are to adults. And we are biologically more sensitive to the plight of one child than we are to the struggle of thousands.

Our experience and reactions to the suffering of those fleeing terror, perhaps offers a mirror to the challenges of compassion in the modern world. Compassion is a motivation for caring, but it has to compete within our human brain with many other evolved motivational systems that turn it off - not least those linked to threat, tribalism, personal possessiveness and territorial control.

As the recent film Inside Out has portrayed so well, we each have a bundle of conflicting motives and emotions, each with their own priorities and claims on our minds. It is well known that politicians can play to our inner conflicts, stimulating threat and tribalism within us, such that we see others as aliens, different from ourselves and not our concern. Our attention is constantly directed towards the threat to ourselves and the need for tough action to ensure our protection.

This language makes us feel swamped, over run, and overwhelmed, and leads to fears of losing our individuality or national identity. We begin to believe that, in some way, by caring for others we will lose opportunities and be required to make sacrifices. We think caring is all very well, but not if it costs us too much.

But the fact is, compassion does cost us; it is not a superficial kindness but a preparedness to engage in the causes of suffering with a commitment to develop the wisdom to try to alleviate and prevent it. This takes courage and requires a preparedness to suffer, to some degree, with those who are suffering. Compassion calls on us to address our dark sides of tribalism, threat and possessiveness - to override our self-focused, competitive mind, so cleverly immortalised by Gollum in the Lord of the Rings. "It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious."

The crisis currently unfolding also directs our attention to something deeper - the understanding that the very nature of human existence is soaked in suffering. From the day we are born to the day we die some 25,000 days later (if we are lucky), we are never far from disease and injury, decay and death; we are never far from the accidents and tragedies of life, the tsunamis, famines and wars.

The only thing that reduces suffering is the help and kindness we extend to each other. We are all interdependent. At the root of all spiritual traditions we are asked to open our eyes to the suffering of others, reach out, share what we have and make personal sacrifices. To do so, we must fight battles within ourselves and spend a moment imagining the empathic position: How would I feel if that was me in the cold transit camp? How would I feel if that was me and my child crammed in a tiny boat desperate to avoid death or rape? How would I feel if I had to watch my terrified three-year-old fall overboard?

When we take an empathic road, we open ourselves to imagine being in the minds of others. Perhaps only then can we wake up and understand what compassion calls on us to do. But it is painful and costly. Much depends on whether we are prepared to begin that journey or instead listen to the inner voices of threat, fear, possessiveness and self-focused concerns.

Let us hope there is no such thing as multiple universes where, in a parallel life, it is us who is desperately in need of the compassion of others. The crisis of suffering of immigrants is not a one-off tragedy, but part of the brutality of modern life. But if we are to learn something exceptional from it, let it be that while compassion may be costly and requiring of courage, commitment and sacrifice, it is absolutely fundamental to improving the plight of humanity.

The key to following the compassionate empathic journey is not to fall into despair but to be inspired to develop the wisdom of how best to take action. That might be working with others on the same cause or encouraging compassionate leadership and values. The fact is, having woken from our compassionate sleep, humans can achieve great things when enough of us commit ourselves to them.