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« Moving Toward Global Compassion », a new book by Paul Ekman

By Matthieu Ricard on September 08, 2014

Renowned psychologist and emotions specialist Paul Ekman opens his recent book Moving Toward Global Compassion* with these words :
« It would be a different world, a desirable world, if all of us felt global compassion : concerned about the suffering of all people, not just those in our family, not just those with whom we are familiar, not just those who share the same skin color, language, or religion. Some people do have global compassion, but most don't. The big question is, why not? Why is global compassion the virtue of a few, not of the many? Is it possible, or even sensible to try to cultivate global compassion in everyone, or is that a fool's dream? »

He also wonders about the nature of empathic concern for others' suffering: « Compassionate feelings or aspirations might be composed of concern for the suffering person, not requiring that the compassionate person feel the sufferer's suffering. Concern is generally considered to be a variant of the emotion fear. ** »

It is indeed appropriate and desirable to experience fear in the presence of an immediate danger — such as coming face to face with a predator or a deadly snake. In relation to concern for the situation of others, I suggested to Paul, when we met recently, that according to circumstances concern for others might not always be connected with fear. If one's child is threatened by a great danger before our eyes, it is natural that concern goes together with the fear that this person might be hurt. In other circumstances, however, concern might be related to positive emotions, such as altruistic love and care. If one wishes nothing but good to someone, one will be genuinely concerned to bring happiness to that person, to be attentive to her aspirations, to go out of one's way to do something that will make her happy. This does not require the presence of fear in our mental landscape. Thus, one may distinguish between a loving concern connected with the aspiration of doing something to increase the other's well-being and a compassionate concern connected with the aspiration of alleviating someone's suffering. Only the latter can be connected with a feeling of fear the person might suffer more if one does not don't intervene to remedy to her ordeal.

* Ekman, P. (2014). Moving Toward Global Compassion. Paul Ekman Group. See also Ekman, P. (2007).

** Ekman, P. (2007). Emotions revealed : Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. Holt Paperbacks.

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