Are we wired to be compassionate? Research in the area of cognitive and social neuroscience seems to suggest exactly that. Specialists at the University of Chicago found that moral reasoning begins well before social conditioning and education has had opportunity to shape a young person. Infants as young as six months show preferential attention to those who have helped (versus wounded) another. Young children select those who are “prosocial” while avoiding those who have harmed another in some way. Indeed, “empirical evidence suggests that increased experiences of empathy encourage prosocial action and inhibit aggressions and other antisocial behavior.”
Most fascinating to me, however, is that fMRIs indicated in these studies show that harmful behaviors toward another activate the area of the brain that registers negative emotions in the observer. Furthermore, with increased age, connection to the amygdala is strengthened, demonstrating greater moral judgment attached to such behavior. That is, as we age, we discern with greater accuracy the intentionality of harmful actions one toward another. That we have a physical, neurological response to harm inflicted on others is evidence that moral judgments are not necessarily religious, nor societally directed. Rather, to be human is to desire empathy and compassion be expressed toward one another.
What is not indicated in these studies is how this might inform my humanity when some are being harmed indirectly by my own seemingly innocuous behaviors. When one witnesses direct injury being inflicted on another, the brain of the observer registers a visceral, neurological response. Yet, if I do not witness firsthand the result of my actions as being harmful to another, my brain does not register the same moral indicators. But, if I become aware of such things and am unmotivated to remedy the situation, though my response is not visceral, do I act against that which is distinctly human and become a little less human in the process?
Ezekiel is directed by God to share with Israel, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (16.49) Most often, the case of Sodom is used to defend hostile attitudes toward the gay and lesbian community by those who claim to be Christians. These same haters often impede efforts to address the needs of the poor if it means an additional, miniscule (by comparison) percentage be extracted from their paychecks. Why do we really need excess of food and copious ease, anyway? I am not aiming to judge others (ok, maybe a little), but am asking this question of myself. What constitutes “excess” and when is “prosperous ease” disproportionate? How do I consciously choose to maintain only what is needed (beyond that concerning which the government intercedes)—and where is the line between need and desire, exactly? How much does my excess violate the possibility for the poor getting what they need?
Many have emphasized that the values and statutes of our country are based on biblical principles. If this is indeed the case, then the government interceding on behalf of the poor is exactly what this country is all about. Beyond this fact, I wrestle with my personal responsibility. My brain is wired to have compassion on others. Why do I then make decisions for my own desires (financially as well as with my time) before making certain that someone in genuine need has that need met? Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy.
I love this quote by Dag Hammarsjköld, from the November 15th MinEmergent Communique:
Lens in the beam
The best and most wonderful that can happen to you in this life is that you should be silent and let God work and speak. You are not the oil, you are not the air – merely the point of combustion, the flashpoint where the light is born. You are merely the lens in the beam. You can only receive, give, and possess the light as a lens does.
Clear, penetrating, beautiful light can be shown when I do not smudge the lens. I must muddy it so terribly by my excesses. How much I long to just be—be that flashpoint, the point of combustion, the place where Light becomes visible to, well, one in darkness, as to me.
Father, I abandon myself
into Your hands.
Do with me what You will,
whatever You do, I will thank You,
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only Your will be done in me,
as in all Your creatures,
and I’ll ask nothing else, my Lord.
Into Your hands I commend my spirit;
I give it to You
with all the love of my heart,
for I love You, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into Your hands
with a trust beyond all measure,
because You are my Father.
Charles de Foucauld