The Contributions of Consolation Philosophy to the Science of Compassion

Pansy Flower

In recent years, the scientific study of compassion, has experienced a tremendous surge; a quick Google Search will disclose the plethora of books, talks, and scholarly publications on the subject matter. Most renown, the work of psychology professor Dr. Kristin Neff on self-compassion has formed the bulwark of our thinking about it in clinical practice. Neff identifies 3 broad skills that form the faculty for compassion:

  1. Attention to one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors
  2. Balanced judgement of one’s experiences (i.e., thoughts, feelings, behaviors); finding a Stoic balance between the polarities of idealization and abrogation.
  3. Perspective taking; that is, the ability to see self-in-others and others-in-self. Another way to think about this is to put oneself into another shoes while putting another into one’s own. Decades earlier, the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer poetically described a similar process as a “fusion of horizons

The study of compassion appears incredibly fruitful in clinical psychology, yet I find the literature almost exclusively focused on individual factors (i.e., attention, judgment, empathy). In other domains however, we are witnessing a surge of interest on the impact of compassion (or its lack thereof) within broader social contexts and systems. Terms such as compassion fatigue, cyberbullying, and self-care are often deployed in discourse concerning the social problems of the day and how we, as the public, deal with them.

What work can we draw from to understand the impact of our social beliefs upon our sense of compassion, and how we can develop compassion to withstand the potentially deleterious affects of these beliefs? I propose that a relatively obscure—and sometimes maligned—branch of philosophy and literature may have a great deal to inform this science. What I am alluding to can be broadly called Consolation Philosophy. This is not an official term and I certainly know not of one that encompasses a fairly diverse array of philosophers, writers and artists who best exemplify its tenets. Perhaps starting with the Stoics and continuing through the Enlightenment, I would regard the most exemplary, modern writer of the day on consolation philosophy to be Alain de Botton, founder of The School of Life. In his book, The Sorrows of Work, de Botton identifies 6 consolations—or truisms that characterize the harsh and sometimes absurd realities of life. These tenets can be broadly described below along with the corresponding myths—or collective illusions—that we have constructed to cope (i.e., avoid openly confronting) these realities:

The odds are against us vs. Myth of Romanticism

The idea that we will decidedly succeed in finding the perfect job, spouse, set of friends and have harmonious relationships with our children is, unfortunately, not firmly grounded in statistical reality. In fact, there appears to be an overwhelming likelihood that we will come up against failure, trauma and major adversity of one sort or another and with respect to virtually every major project or goal we will undertake. Consider that for all the salmon that make it upstream, there are many more who do not. For all the people that we see who live charmed lives, there are likely many more beneath us who are likewise struggling to aspire to what we already have. The idea that life will work out how we want if we want it hard enough is what de Botton calls ‘the lottery phenomenon’ here and the Myth of Romanticism elsewhere. The myth of romanticism is about as likely as the payout from a lottery (and often ignores the extreme sacrifices and dedication demanded upon the few fortunate individuals). Funnily, tragically enough, it is because some people win that many of us assume that it is simply a matter of time before our own number comes up.

The consolation here is that nearly everyone we are likely to encounter has struggled with some version of the big, thematic concerns that preoccupy our life: sex, money, body image, relevance. We are NOT ALONE and NOT ALIEN.

Life makes us all imperfect vs. Myth of Actualization

No matter how hard we try, we will probably screw up. This means, we will in all likelihood make mistakes in growing up, work, love, parenting, etc. This also implies that we are ourselves a product of other peoples care, love—and mistakes. All of us in fact carry some flaws, hang-ups and unmet needs from childhood. de Botton refers to this truism, by way of allegory in the Bible, as our ‘original sin.’ The Myth of Actualization suggests that we can, theoretically, achieve a state of enlightenment in which we correct our flaws in life in perfect harmony with our goals, values and highest desires. Ironically, the psychologist who best developed the idea of actualization, Dr. Abraham Maslow, was clear that actualization is a transient and exceedingly difficult state to obtain, even fleetingly.

The consolation here is that it is perhaps our faults which best define us against the morass of common humanity, bestowing us our uniqueness. And in our pain, we have a way towards the light. As Leonard Cohen memorably sang,

There is a crack

A crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Modern lives are not very failure tolerant vs. Myth of Optimization

As before, imperfection is a part of the human condition as is failure. In previous eras, de Botton notes, the consolation was that these failures could usually be chalked up to bad magic, the gods, or Fate. The Myth of Optimization tells us that we may turn every failure into a success. The cruel underside of this myth is that while we are singularly responsible for our successes, so are we (perhaps doubly so) for our failures.

The consolation is that people will fail, and will likely fail to profit from their failures. This is not to say that one should not try to succeed, or profit from one’s failures; it is simply a reminder that fairness is not always favored by Fortune. And despite our illusion of self-assured steadfastness, we are all continually moving around her great orbit. So be kind to yourself when you inevitably misplay your hand.

We are geared to envy vs. Myth of Happiness

We are social beings and as such, we are equipped with cognitive architecture to constantly survey our social circumstances and draw inferences about our own standing relative to others. Some suggest that envy has adaptive functions (e.g., to draw us closer to people we can benefit from aligning with, motive self-improvement, help us assert ourselves). This makes sense, given its ubiquity amongst us and other primates. However, we rarely stop to consider or fully appreciate the fruits of this unhappy inheritance. Rather, we seek to suppress this emotion with the Myth of Happiness. This myth frames envy as inevitably ‘toxic’, and implores us to do the seemingly impossible: that is, witness the flourishing of others while simultaneously suppressing our desire to draw comparisons. Instead, the myth implores, we should only feel happy or neutral towards the successes of others, while humbly striving to find our own path.

The consolation to this madness is that envy does indeed seem to serve crucial functions in the project of self-betterment. Can it be overdone? Of course. But if we throw out the baby with the bathwater what are we left with? Happiness devoid of others–can such a thing exist?  

Limitations of our own, prehistoric biology vs. Myth of Transhumanism

The limitations suggested above also apply to how we may treat—and be treated by—others. As de Botton puts it, we will probably “fall foul of office politics” at some point in our careers, and love relationships. The Myth of Transhumanism, sold to us by venture capitalists and futurists, attempts to succor us with the idea that we can, and one day will, outgrow our basic, sometimes cruel and petty, nature through technological and social engineering. As Jean-Luc Picard notes in the Star Trek episode Hide and Q, it appears to be the destiny of humans to one day be as God. This global, more cosmopolitan myth is simply a reincarnation of the older, ethnocentric myth of Manifest Destiny, made consumable for a global market.

While we are likely to continue stumbling into ways (new and old) of being shitty towards one another, the consolation is that we are not unique in our victimhood here. We can, and indeed must, move forward in the circumstances of being egregiously wronged against because that is what humans do. If we continue to rage against our inherent limitations to overcome our struggles (or the limitations of others), we may overlook more obvious and humble ways of putting one foot in front of the other and slowly (but surely) creating distance between ourselves and that which has hurt us.

We are products of economic and social circumstance vs. Myth of Liberal Flourishing

When we make choices regarding education, love, career, family, we tend to overlook the massive influences that circumstances have upon our seemingly personal decisions. What the philosopher Martin Heidegger called our thrownness a given place, country, culture, period of history, family, social and economic circumstance all has shaped the information and people we have been exposed to. Our personalities, preferences, and even most deeply held and cherished thoughts have been indelibly shaped, day-by-day, by these invisible forces moving all around us. The Myth of Liberal Flourishing paints a portrait in which one can engineer one’s preferences, goals, dreams and success by virtue of being born in a ‘free and liberal’ society. In fact, no society is free and liberal in this sense. We are all encumbered—or clothed, if you prefer—by the circumstances that were bequeathed to us, in which we are always, continually incepted into.

The consolation is that we can account for our failures with a greater degree of kindness and our successes with some modesty if we take the longer, grander view of how we are made.

As we can see from these list of truisms, there are social myths—or collective illusions—that can be identified as well as lessons can we learn here that may inform our understanding and practice of compassion. By devoting serious study to our shared miseries, we can more accurately identify the values of empathy, slow growth, compromise,  and diversifying our range of needs and wants and regard these as sensible ways of responding to the overwhelming sadness and ridiculousness of our mortal condition.

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