Compassion and Health, The Benefits of Feeling for Others
"One might assume that watching someone suffering would cause stress and raise the heart rate,” Stellar said. “But we have found that, during compassion, the heart rate lowers as if the body is calming itself to take care of another person.” Greater Good Science Center.
I took this quote from a report on a study done comparing class differences in how people respond to suffering in others. For our purposes, I think it is interesting to note (as I have mentioned before, in passing, on the blog) that compassion is actually good for you.
It might seem like when you empathize with someone else's suffering that it is deleterious to you. But, this is not what the studies are showing. It seems as if we are wired to care. Possibly this is why it has long been noticed that volunteer workers are happier as a result of their volunteer activity. Of course, volunteer work isn't always about helping the less fortunate. In my community, for example, there is a a very active volunteer group that is doing riparian restoration projects.
But, most volunteer groups exist to provide assistance to people who need help---the elderly, children in juvenile hall, rape victims, the disabled, children having problems in school, crisis intervention hot lines, peer counseling, homeless shelters, lunch programs for the hungry, and so on.
The first time I ever did any volunteer work, I was only 14 years old. There was a Cerebral Palsy Center on a street we often passed through. One day I told my mother that I wanted to work there. So, I became what is often known as a Candy Striper. We were like young, junior nurses. But we had no clinical training. What we did was organize games and art projects and music experiences for the kids. We socialized with them and offered the acceptance of 'normal teenagers'. It was wonderful for them. We just integrated into their group and it made them feel less, sequestered away as if they couldn't or shouldn't hang out in the regular world.
These children and adolescents were severely disabled. I remember when my mother used to come to pick me up, she would sometimes say, "Oh! I don't know how you can do this!" But, I didn't feel that way at all. I knew each of those kids as individuals. I had little relationships, friendships of a sort, with them. It seemed natural to me.
I still remember some of them. One boy had muscular dystrophy. He was in a quite advanced stage, had to be in a wheelchair and during the time I worked there, I saw him losing more and more muscle strength. He was so discouraged and angry. His mind was fully functional and normal. He wanted so much to be doing all the things a teenager at that time would expect to be doing. He was frustrated at times because some of the kids at the center had developmental disabilities (reduced intellectual capacity). So, for him, we were a ray of sunshine, a relief, a respite, and our presence was something that he looked forward to.
When you read his story, it probably seems sad to you. But, in all honesty, while I saw very clearly his predicament, I was there to help and be involved in a positive way. That's what we all did and it was fine. It was good. It felt right. It just seemed like the thing to do.
Credit: Photograph of tree by Ping H. Chen.
Bottom picture is of a clay Tree of Life, made by an artisan in Mexico, carried here, by hand, by me and another family member.