Are men more compassionate than women if we expand the definition of compassion?
I used to think that the biggest problem in our world was men’s lack of compassion, until it dawned on me how that thought lacked compassion. The more I researched and observed, I realized that not only were men compassionate, but they were often unappreciated for their acts of compassion.
Part of the problem stems from a preconceived notion of what compassion looks like. Emma Seppala, Associate Director for the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, claims that “One reason we might think that women are more compassionate than men is that we think of compassion in only one way: nurturance, kindness, softness, gentleness, and emotional warmth. We think of compassion in mostly feminized terms.”
In my life, I can recall many acts of compassion by men that weren’t soft and gentle. Once when I got bashed in the head by my surfboard, a friend of mine threw me on his shoulders and carried me over 2 miles back to medical facilities.
Perhaps if we used the term “fierce compassion,” more acts of compassion by men would come to light. Fierce compassion often involves self-sacrifice like altruistic acts done by soldiers in battle. Men who practice this form of compassion rarely look for acknowledgment or appreciation.
I think about all the men who followed Mahatma Gandhi to the Dharasana Salt Works and allowed themselves to be beaten without retaliating in the spirit of non-violent resistance. Gay men in the military and professional sports who have suffered tremendous abuse, yet continue to perform heroic acts for our safety and entertainment also come to mind.
Fierce compassion can assume the form of teenage boys who are mercilessly bullied every day, yet refuse to retaliate. Some of these boys persevere through depression, isolation, and suicidal thoughts without any support from schools or parents. They are a testament to the strength of humanity just by waking up every day and going to school.
Stay-at-home dads perform courageous acts of nurturing, care, and discipline in the face of prejudice and indifference. Not only are these compassionate men not acknowledged, but they are often condemned and looked down upon by others including their partners. I often see these dads at the park alone watching their children while a group of mothers support each other within earshot without offering an invitation to join their group (actually, I’ve been that dad).
In terms of specific individuals in contemporary society, George Takei, better known as Mr. Sulu from Star Trek, heads the list. A well-known actor, Takei jeopardized his career in 2005 by revealing that he is a homosexual in protest of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation. Perhaps Takei’s most fierce acts of compassion occur while he is an announcer for the Howard Stern show, where he is the only cast member who got universally positive feedback from audience e-mails.
Jon Meis who tackled and pepper-sprayed the gunman at Seattle Pacific University has been called a hero, but we rarely hear him described as compassionate. Meis saw and felt the suffering of others and had the desire to help—which he did at great risk to his own safety. This is almost an exact definition of compassion. What Jon Meis did was fiercely compassionate.
For me, the most visceral example of fierce compassion comes from the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama tells a story of a Tibetan monk he met who had been in a Chinese prison, where he was tortured, placed in solitary confinement, and prohibited from practicing his traditions for 20 years.
The Dalai Lama asked this monk if he ever feared for his life. The monk replied only when he feared that he would lose compassion for his Chinese prison guards. This monk would rather die than lose his compassion. We will probably never know the name of this monk or celebrate him the way we do Mother Teresa, but he is a man and he is practicing a form of compassion that needs to be recognized.
I’d like to invite you to keep your eye out for this form of fierce compassion and tell the men in your life that you appreciate their sacrifice, courage, and strength when you see them acting in this manner. The more these compassionate acts are recognized the more they will spread.
If you are interested in cultivating your fierce compassion, join me at the Fierce Compassion and Purpose Conference in San Francisco. Click here for more information.
Photo: Lee Reynolds/Flickr