Are We Becoming Less Compassionate, Less Fully Human? How Might We Return To What We May Be?


“Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be” - William Shakespeare (The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Act IV, Scene V)


We need to reclaim a compassionate worldview and practice that embraces the interconnectivity and interdependence of individuals, communities, nature and the cosmos.

A worldview that encompasses awareness, understanding, reaching out with unconditional acceptance and non-violent communication; that leads to positive emotional contagion, and fuels a growing readiness to serve and heal wherever there is opportunity.


English psychologist Paul Gilbert defines compassion as “ .. a basic kindness, with deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living beings, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it”. (Gilbert, P. 2013)

This opinion piece is a look at where we have been as a human race, where we are headed, and where and what we might wish to be – at a time in our history when separation, polarisation, unsocial distancing, a widespread “me first” attitude, increasing government control and compliance measures that have accompanied the Covid-19 pan(ic)demic, and a new (ab)normal characterised by high-tech, are set to become the order of the day.

We are at a time in our evolution where compassion for the suffering of the other can be shown to be under threat.

In general there appears to be a spreading of narcissism, a me-first, self-serving mindset that is the opposite of empathy or compassion. Yet, the Dalai Lama has often stated that “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive”. 

Zia H. Shah, MD and Chief Editor of the Muslim Times, sees compassion as a bridge between people, and points out that according to the Quran, “… the litmus test for true belief and genuine worship is that it leads to compassionate living”. (Shah, Z.H. 2013)

So how do we nurture soft hearts and reclaim our essential human characteristic of unconditional compassion?  We need to look back before looking ahead.


In the broadest of historical, geological, biological, theological, psychological, philosophical terms, how has humanity developed?

“It is possible that the first creatures with a nervous system were entirely unconscious. Still, over 600 million years, the simple network linking sensory and motor systems grew more complex, and developed a headquarters – a rudimentary brain – at the top of the spinal cord. This brain evolved further from the bottom up, first thickening the brainstem, next acquiring subcortical structures such as the amygdala and basal ganglia, and then growing a cortex that now includes the prefrontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. Somewhere along the way, the survival of animals was increased by evolving capacities to become aware of their internal states and external environment. Perhaps the ancient jellyfish had no awareness, but the goldfish in a pond are clearly aware of the gardener’s shadow as they rise to be fed, and a cat shows heightened awareness of a nearby dog. In humans and other animals, awareness, attention, sleep, and waking all depend upon underlying neural structures and activities; consciousness is largely if not entirely a natural process.  (Panksepp 2005).

Neuroscientist Rick Hansen continues the story: “Love is woven into your day because it's woven into your DNA: as our ancestors evolved over the last several million years, many scientists believe that love, broadly defined, has been the primary driving force behind the evolution of the brain. Bands of early humans that were particularly good at understanding and caring for each other out-competed less cooperative and loving bands, and thereby passed on the genes of empathy, bonding, friendship, altruism, romance, compassion, and kindness - the genes, in a word, of love”. (Hansen, Rick. 2013)

And Paul Gilbert, clinical psychologist and founder of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) explains that as our human brains have evolved we’ve been given the ability to imagine, contemplate, foresee, reflect - in short to think about the future and the past, so we now have the potential to imagine the worst and become really anxious, and also to have lingering regrets and resentments. His extensive research shows that antidotes to these ‘new brain-mind troubles’ are mindfulness and compassion. By cultivating a prosocial focus on others, we take our minds off ourselves and our worries (and thus benefit others and ourselves). (Gilbert, P. 2010)

Something in the human condition allows for conflict, genocide, atrocities, concentration camps, the easy acceptance of ‘collateral damage’ during wars, anarchy and looting, gross deception and fake news, unbelievable cruelty and abuses, selfish ‘me first’ and ‘me only’ thinking, a desire to control others.

And something in the human condition of duality embraces an incredible appreciation of beauty, creativity, truth-seeking, bonding, sacrificial compassion, and self-less ‘we’ thinking.  

As we consider reclaiming the virtue of compassion that we are in danger of diminishing, which way are the scales tipping now?


More and more people are being caught up in the ‘me first, look after number one, me only’ mind-set.  This disconcerting, narcissistic trend causes lasting damage, lowers the integrity and willingness to collaborate of those they influence. (O’Reilly, C. et al 2019) It is the antithesis of serving others and of being compassionate.

They are joining the stampede to build their personal brand, make as much money and assume as much power as they can - often in abrasive, bitter, angry, and outrageous ways, dividing in order to rule  - and this drive is fuelled by populist politicians and on social media. The objects of their focus are bombarded with fake news, naming and blaming, fear - mongering, stereotyping, ‘us and them’ thinking. This amounts to an assault on our basic impulse to be empathic

The demands of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the super-fast, complex, high-tech and uncertain transformation of society that is upon us, could further negatively influence the practice of compassion, and hasten transhumanism.  Declining resources (water, food, clean air) will inevitably put more focus on survival and ‘us versus them’ competition and conflict, and void engagement with emotions and virtues like compassion.  The coronavirus pandemic and work-from-home lockdowns, accompanied by government over-control and imposition of social distancing  may well lead to greater disconnection between people. As economies enter recessions and depressions, trade and other wars may escalate and further separate people – physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually – and curtail demonstrations of compassion.

We are seeing growing incidences of the bystander effect, a crossing to the other side of the street when confronted by someone else’s distress.   

In August, 2016 BBC World News TV broadcast images of a man in Delhi who was knocked over by a vehicle. The driver stopped to have a quick look, then travelled on. Witnesses and passers-by paid no heed to the man’s plight. After an hour, someone walked to where he lay and stole his cell phone. The man died later, unattended. (BBC. 2016)

This incident happened after the introduction of a new “good Samaritan” law designed to encourage involvement, assure helpers of not being intimidated by the authorities, nor getting caught up in red-tape.  The bystander effect continues, even with regard to the witness of crimes such as rape.

(Other countries have a range of responses to the bystander effect. Some countries penalise those who unwittingly further imperil the life of someone in distress, irrespective of any good intent to help. Germany has a law that insists that people must help those in need – or risk prison time. Whatever the thrust of the legislation, voluntary compassion is hardly encouraged!)

Research by Sara Konrath, Assistant Research Professor at the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the University of Michigan, indicates that we may be becoming less considerate, less inclined to be empathic, and less likely to relate to another’s feelings and viewpoints. She reports that this decline is accelerating. (Weikle, B)


In the following story we can trace a progression from dislike and anger, to an awareness of suffering, to a development of sympathy/pity (for another/others), to empathy (with another/others), to a state of  compassion and the urge to carry out an ethical action of love (a bridge), to help relieve the suffering. Then action is taken and has a knock-on effect.  Compassion becomes a collective phenomenon. The story represents a pathway for how we might engage with others with compassion.


Pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow put “transpersonal needs” (with  compassion being most prominent) on top of his framework for self-actualisation/ transcendence. (Wilbur, K. 2020)  A spiritually mature, contented individual – that is, someone who has an appropriate self concept and esteems/ values self - is able to transcend fear, threat of difference, anger and hatred - show compassion to,  and receive compassion from, others. The story above illustrates a transcendence of dislike, anger, hatred and difference.

Disquieting signs of a lack of compassion may be here to stay.  In some countries refugees, economic migrants and those from war-torn areas continue to be feared, and ostracised because they are different to the ‘receiving’ communities – who seek to protect themselves from perceived, negative impacts on their economy, job-availability, lifestyle, health, level of crime, and social norms?  And in a few countries backlash has reached extremes of physical violence, xenophobia and genocide. (Genocide and xenophobia have a spectrum of cognitive and behavioural content not confined only to the extremes of physical annihilation. A spectrum that incorporates a host of other annihilations and damages, including cultural, social, economic, identity, lifestyle, ritual, rights, education).

It is hoped but by no means certain that affected societies and communities will come to appreciate the possibility of their enhancement over time through the positive benefits of the richness of diversity on every area of our lives - and thus open up the possibility of compassionate acceptance, assimilation, and integration.  

We are liminally poised, at this point in our history as humankind, for the story that is about to emerge. My hope is for a raising of conscience that leads to the resurgence of compassion in our societies.  That we are able to rally around the Charter for Compassion.

Instigated by author Karen Armstrong, an expert on comparative religion, and unveiled in 2009, the Charter exhorts all peoples and religions to embrace the core virtue of compassion. It recognises that: “We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world … Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity”. (Charter of Compassion. 2009 and Armstrong, K. 2011).


How do we nurture soft hearts and reclaim our compassion?

Compassion is not something that can be taught intellectually. Rather it is what singer, poet Leonard Cohen termed “a revelation of the heart”.

I believe that we need to kindle awareness, a focused intention and attention on practices that develop compassion, and also engage in story that connects, inspires, that builds bridges and not walls between people.


The key to the door of compassion is to be aware, or mindful, of its need and to then bring focused attention and intention to its practice and ongoing development. Awareness, being conscious, is the startpoint.

Become increasingly aware that we are all an inextricably interconnected and interdependent part of the web of life, which we share (across past, present, future boundaries), with other species, nature, the planet. We are only a tiny blip in the immensity of universal time and space - as individuals, and as a species. We are here to see each other through (and not to see through each other!)

Thomas Merton explains from his perspective as a Trappist monk: 

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world…” (Merton, Thomas. 2014)

And Greek observer of life, philosopher and author Nikos Kazantzakis’ wonderfully aware character Zorba, voiced it this way:  “It’s beyond me. Everything seems to have a soul – wood, stones, the wine we drink and the earth we tread on. Everything, boss, absolutely everything!” (Kazantzakis, N. 1961) 

Ancient Buddhist teaching that wisdom alludes to heart-mind, by stating that a bird needs two wings to fly. We need compassion and wisdom, heart and mind, cognitive and affective, ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ working together to manifest our full human-ness. “If you do not understand, you cannot love”.(Thich Nhat Hanh. 2020)    

Perhaps we can recover our humanity and innate compassion best by placing more reliance on, and nurturing our heart-minds? (Tafler, A. 2019)


Practice makes better, if not perfect! Meditation is a way of ‘subduing’ the egoic self in stillness and silence, and we can then enter more specifically into practices such as lovingkindness meditation - in order to direct love and compassion and not suffering, to self and to all sentinent beings. Other helpful practices may include reflection, contemplation, prayer, labyrinth walks, time in nature, yoga, chanting of mantras, icon gazing, attentive listening to music and to others, practicing simplicity, expressing gratitude and journaling, and active imagination exercises.  And there is untold power in forgiveness, in freeing our minds of past resentments to allow for more compassion, while at the same time carrying out what is an act of compassion! Barbara Hunt citing Raph Cree: “Forgiveness is pretty much a one word distillation of all spiritual, philosophical and emotional practice. I don’t know any other single practice that has the same transformational potential or the same abundance of benefits as forgiveness”. (Hunt, B. 2020)

Rachel Naomi Remen, is a medical doctor with a chronic illness who is able to understand another’s plight and need, and empathise. Because she has experienced something akin to  their plight and need, she is able to put herself in their shoes:

"Before every session I take a moment to remember my humanity. There is no experience that this man has that I cannot share with him, no fear I cannot understand, no suffering that I cannot care about, because I too am human. No matter how deep his wound, he does not need to be ashamed in front of me. I too am vulnerable. And because of this, I am enough. Whatever his story, he no longer needs to be alone with it. This is what will allow his healing to begin". (Remen, R. 1996)

This understanding and practice applies with equal force in our workplaces:

  • Dr Amy Bradley of Hult Ashridge Executive Education believes that compassion is a fundamental human value, overlooked in most organisations - where there is a trend towards dehumanisation and a transaction-paradigm rather than an interaction-paradigm. (Bradley, A. 2019)
  • It would be a great pity if coronavirus lockdowns and a shift to remote, work-from-home situations characterised by high technology, resulted in a reinforcement of this (low touch) trend – at the very time of hurt, uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness (and even depression) that we most need high touch.
  • Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has undertaken extensive research that exposes our limiting beliefs about power. He shows clearly how compassion and selflessness enable influence – both direct and indirect, and invoke followership. (Keltner, D. 2016) (In this context any motive other than what is embodied in a selfless approach would reduce these acts of compassion to manipulation. We don’t show compassion in order to gain power!)

Expect displays of compassion to be contagious and have a knock-on effect (as illustrated in the Yevtushenko story about the German prisoners of war in Moscow, told earlier in this article). Indeed, pioneering theologian  Cynthia Bourgeault teaches that “Compassion doesn't belong to the individual, it is an emergent property of the whole". 

Compassion is not an individual, superior ‘helping’ or ‘giving’, self-serving attribute or property. Rather, it is something that equalises us. It is above the personal. It can be seen as a non-dualistic dynamic shared between ‘giver’ and ‘receiver’, a sharing of ‘one mind’, an equal connectedness or relationship - so that the whole is healed. (Bourgeault, C. 2017)


One way to think about interconnectivity is that in the brain, synapses are the gaps between neurons. Connection-activity in the synaptic space is vital. Using the brain neuron and synapse analogy, psychologist Louis Cozolino coined the term “social synapse” to refer to the gaps between people, and the vital importance of our gap activity. (Cozolino, L. 2006)  

In a world where we share, as William James the pioneering psychologist put it, a “torn-to-pieces-hood”, bridging stories forge connections between people, facilitate acceptance, engagement and learning, and enable an understanding, prosocial and compassionate mindset.  (Williams, G. 2019)

To elaborate briefly: stories that build bridges are non-egoic, relational rather than transactional. They are a departure from traditional storytelling and work at the levels of one-on-one relationships, organisations and institutions, even nation-states. Told by story practitioners who are mature (emotionally, socially, cognitively, ethically and spiritually), the approach is to:

  • Research thoroughly, both in respect of the topic and the listening audiences’ cultural sensitivity and worldview
  • Reach out, approach and engage with sensitivity, forgiveness and a non-violent choice of words and language, listen deeply to the other’s story within different frames, and use empathy walks and humble enquiry as aids to building the bridge.
  • Acknowledge and welcome what flows between story tellers and story listeners at the unseen, unheard, unknown, mysterious level. This includes an understanding of a reality that sees the mind as not belonging to a single individual, but instead as “an emergent, self-organising, embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information”. (Siegel, D. 2017); that consists of a deep, invisible “implicate” order (which we will never fully comprehend and understand and) which lies below and beyond our observed “explicate”  reality - as conceptualised by quantum physicist Daniel Bohm; and allowing for the phenomenon of morphic resonance as developed by scientist Rupert Sheldrake - the extended mind and an inexplicable ‘unconscious knowing’ where the real and imagined intersect. (Sheldrake, R. 2020)
  • Allow for Armenian mysic I. Gurdjieff’s ‘law of three’ outcome, where two opposing stories may result in a new, unforeseen third story. A teaching from Jesus is that if a seed (‘for’) falls to the ground (‘against’), then only with water & sunlight (a reconciling force) will there be a sprout (birth of the new). (Bourgeault, C. 2013)

We can reclaim a compassionate worldview and further the practice of compassion in society by raising awareness and deepening understanding, developing specific practices to build and internalise compassion, and using stories that build bridges between people and contribute to a climate of compassion.

We need a revolution of compassion based on warm-heartedness that will contribute to a more compassionate world with a sense of oneness of humanity” - Dalai Lama.


The reflections that follow have been designed to allow readers the option of contemplating the nature of compassion and relating this to their personal practice.

1. As an image-ination exercise, contemplate Vincent Willem van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan (In the Public Domain) and the story behind the painting:


A Samaritan,who comes across a robbed, beaten-up man lying on the notorious ‘Way of Blood’ road from Jerusalem to Jericho, bleeding and dying. The dying man is assumed to be Jewish, a member of a race that then avoided and hated half-breed, outcast Samaritans.

But the Samaritan (unlike a Priest and member of an elite Jewish tribe associated with the priesthood who had passed the man earlier) doesn’t cross to the other side of the road and become a bystander or bypasser, doesn’t practice any social or physical distancing, perhaps risks catching a virus, goes to the man’s aid, pours expensive wine and oil on his wounds, bandages them. He puts the wounded man on his donkey. His journey is thus interrupted and slowed down, placing him at risk of attack by robbers.

He takes the wounded man to an inn, looks after him, then leaves the next day, paying the inn keeper and giving instructions that the man be cared for until the Samaritan’s return, when he will reimburse the innkeeper for any extra expenses incurred.  Not in a superior or “I am giving to you” or “you owe me” way.

  • Start by reflecting on how you can be a good Samaritan to others in your family, community, and place of work. To what extent can we, in our work, community and home lives, adopt the mind-set , the role and the risk of being the compassionate one who comes alongside during another’s time of need … as is so marvellously done by members of Alcoholics Anonymous?

The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous encapsulates for us the core aspect of being fully human as we attempt to recover what we are in danger of losing:

Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery. A kindly act once in a while isn’t enough. You have to act the Good Samaritan every day, if need be. It may mean the loss of many nights’ sleep, great interference with your pleasures, interruptions to your business. It may mean sharing your money and your home, counseling frantic spouses and relatives, innumerable trips to court, hospitals, jails and asylums … Your job now is to be at the place where you may be of maximum helpfulness to others”.  (“J”. 1996)

  • Neuroscientists point out that self-compassion is a necessary pre-condition for showing compassion to others. Think on and mull over how you can be a good Samaritan to yourself (perhaps when you feel alienated, lonely, hurt), or to a part of yourself (for example, a wounded inner child needing nurturing).
  • Identify and empathise with – and put yourself in the shoes of the wounded man. You are not the ‘hero’ of the story giving assistance to another. You are the victim, receiving compassion from someone from a race and class that you detest, who has a very different worldview and beliefs, is a threat to what you stand for. Imagine: you have been rendered impotent, are totally dependent on a different - another’s help, on an unwanted neighbours’ compassion.

Are you able to manage the shift to accepting help from a stranger who you have previously viewed in a very bad light (even an enemy),  to loving that stranger as you love yourself, unconditionally?

2. Reflect on compassion belonging to the collective – not something given and received by individuals. (The parable can be interpreted to address both)

Bring to mind the progression of compassion as illustrated by the Yevtushenko story about a Russian crowd’s compassion shown to German prisoners of war, and Cynthia Bourgeault’s teaching that compassion is something that belongs to the collective rather than to the individual.

For you, is the parable not only about who your neighbour is, but about what constitutes good neighbourliness, and how good neighbourliness is demonstrated and nurtured and understood in community?  

3. Going deeper. Consider and ponder on the parable being about much more than the superficial interpretation – to do the right thing. To what extent, in the context of our own society, does it deeply test what we feel about, how we respond to and judge the characters and their status in the story, who and what role we automatically identify with and prefer, and what our true values are? (Carter, P. 2003)

4. To think on: Can you foresee a widespread development of a compassionate worldview held by yourself and others, that extends and expands beyond single acts of compassion to embrace how we consistently and continuously relate to our family, home and means of sustenance. Where:

  • Our “Family” is all of society viewed as a cohesive, attending community of all living, sentient beings
  • Our “Home” is the universe and planet that sustains us. It is all of nature. A place where our living is characterised by eco-centricity and responsible stewardship
  • Our “Means” are provided in an economy that is circular not linear, where the focus is on extraction, harvesting, manufacturing, distributing and simple using and sharing of resources in a way that sustains and regenerates.

In your daily living how do you show care and compassion to family, home and means defined in this manner? Does this reflection cast light for you on how we might return to what we may be?



Armstrong, Karen (2011) Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life  Alfred A. Knopf, NY

BBC World News (2016) Delhi Hit-And-Run Victim Robbed As He Lays Dying   1th August, 2016  

Bourgeault, Cynthia (2013) The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity  Shambhala

Bourgeault, Cynthia (2017)  The Heart of Compassion  2017 Festival of Faiths

Bradley, Amy (2019) The Human Moment: the positive power of compassion in the workplace LID Publishing

Carter, Philippa (2003) The Narcissistic Reader and the Parable of the Good Samaritan Journal of Religion & Society Volume 5 (2003) ISSN 1522-5658

Charter for Compassion (2009)

Cozolino, L  (2006)  The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: attachment and the developing social brain Norton & Company, Inc.  NY 

Gilbert, Paul (2013) The Compassionate Mind: a new approach to life’s challenges Constable, London

Gilbert, Paul Ph.D. (2010) Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive Features (CBT Distinctive Features) Routledge, East Sussex, UK

Hansen, Rick (2013) Trust in Love  Just One Thing Newsletter, 17 July

Hunt, Barbara J. (2020) Forgiveness Alan Chapmn Blog entry, BusinessBalls Saturday, 26 September 2020, 6:33 PM

“J,” (1996) A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” Hyperion

Kazantzakis, Nikos (1995) Zorba the Greek Faber & Faber

Keltner, D. Dr (2016) The Power Paradox: how we gain and lose influence Penguin Press

Merton, Thomas (2014) Adapted by Thomas Moore Conjectures of a guilty bystander Image

O’Reilly, Charles A.,Chatman, Jennifer and Doerr, Bernadette (2019) When ‘Me’ Trumps ‘We’: narcissistic leaders and the cultures they create Working Paper 3809. August, 2019. Graduate School of Business, Stanford University

Panksepp, Jaak (2005) Affective Consciousness: Core Emotional Feelings in Animals and Humans Consciousness & Cognition 14, no. 1 (2005): 30–80. Cited in Neurodharma: Practicing with the Brain in Mind   © 2013 Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Remen, Rachel Naomi MD  (1996) Kitchen Table Wisdom The Berkley Publishing Group (Penguin)

Shah, Zia H (2013) Two Hundred Verses about Compassionate Living in the Quran Muslim Times, October 29th, 2013

Sheldrake, Rupert (2020) Morphic Resonance

Siegel, Daniel J. MD Mind: a journey to the heart of being human W.W.Norton & Company 2017

Tafler, Afshan (2019) How Your Heart May Be Your Wisest Brain  Unyte Health Inc. Blog

Thich Nhat Hanh (2020, February) To Practice Mindfulness Is to Return to Life: on mindfulness, harnessing compassion, and cherishing life lIONS rOAR, February, 2020  From For a Future To Be Possible: Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts published by Parallax Press; reprinted with permission

Weikle, Brandie How to cultivate compassion  Reader’s Digest

Wilbur, Ken (2020) The leading edge of the unknown in the human being Integral Life

Williams, Graham (2019) From walls to Bridges with Story

Zeldin, Theodore (1998) An Intimate History of Humanity   Vintage


© Graham Williams, 2020

© 2022 Charter for Compassion. All rights reserved.