Has Compassion Become A Radical Value?

The future: something looming, often evoking contemplation and concern. Arguably, this is an attitude imposed upon us by capitalism; that in order to be someone special, we need to achieve material success. This leaves no accounting for the power of personal human growth.

Instead of thriving as I was meant to at university, I just found myself feeling more and more apathy towards a subject I used to love – stressing about the reading I couldn’t bring myself to even focus on and the fact the marks I received on essays didn’t appear to be improving.

I’ve started to think that the ideal of “this is what I’m doing for my future”, which starting uni has intensified, is responsible for this. I’ve lately come to realise that I am getting something from the course, because that something keeps me commuting in almost every day, even though my travelling time outbalances my contact hours. Maybe just learning new ways of thinking and still seeking a way for that to click into place is enough for me.

Yet I worry about how tenuous this sounds in the face of speaking to older generations who go, “Ooh, you’re doing English – do you know what you want to do as a career?”

No, I don’t, because I’m only eighteen and I’m only in my first year and I still have so much to figure out. Yet I respond by smiling sweetly, with an aftertaste of feeling guilty about not being as studious as I perhaps should be.

Another area of life that is dominated by a certain expectation of how we interact is the more personal aspect of connections to others. We often have to learn how to accommodate different ways of thinking. I’m lucky to have an assortment of genuine friendships and it’s exciting that I’m yet to meet many fascinating people, but I struggle with the fact that finding people who I can truly connect with is so rare.

I’ve often felt like I’m looking in on cold fronts of indifference that are so contradictory to my perception of social life. There’s a certain youth social construct that holds a fascination with gossip and the more attractive ideas of us that we present through style or social media or fashionable interests.

But articulating a critique on the shallowness of this perception doesn’t tend to go down brilliantly. Or, if raw emotions come into the mix and the mask comes off, less people are interested in your friendship.

The new wave of anonymous uni confession pages epitomises such constructs, which appear to be dominated by the shallowness of specific ideals people hold. They’re predominantly focused on:

  • Making everything about sex.
  • How the value of a person is based on if they’re “hot”
  • Shaming people on a variety of things, including a) It’s presented as wrong for people to get attached after a night out, b.) the implication that sleeping around is an achievement, and c.) there’s a certain elite for anyone who fits a particular category of attractiveness and confidence, which implies that they are more worthy of attention in having these qualities.

On the surface, anonymous pages are funny: but underneath, it’s seriously messed up that their primary purpose seems to have become provocative. The thing I’m most appalled by, however, is that the first person I question is myself for not fitting in with this. As soon as I noticed this was how I was responding, I unliked the page.

Still, because of the nature of social media, I find myself flicking through the posts every now and then, occasionally in the hope of someone coming out with something a bit more genuine or “wholesome”. What was wrong with me for not wanting to even pretend to agree or laugh? Why was I too shy and overly sensitive to even consider complicity in the ideals of what seemed to be dominant?  

I’ve felt overwhelmed by a combination of: the omnipresent uneasiness as to whether caring too deeply about things just puts me in a vulnerable position; and a feeling of inferiority because of materialistic pressures, both from within my own age group and from the expectations of the education system/society as a whole. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, yet I feel so many people cave in to these ideals in some way.

Perhaps the stem of such challenges is rooted in how the idea of something replaces how it actually is. Or how a material experience or image steps in as more accessible and less challenging than considering the abstract.

There’s a song by The 1975 called ‘Loving Someone’ where Matty Healy’s (bloody brilliant!) lyricism articulates a lot of what I’m trying to explore, particularly with this segment:

Charlatan telepathy, exploiting insecurity, and praying on the purity

Of grief and its simplicity but I know that maybe I’m too skeptical

Even Guy Debord needed spectacles, you see

I’m the Greek economy of cashing intellectual cheques

And I’m trying to progress, but instead of selling sex…

I think I should be…

…loving someone.

Debord’s ‘67 theory The Society of The Spectacle presents a social commentary on a modern society in which a representation of social life has replaced “All that once was directly lived”, presenting that “The spectacle is […] a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” I think that society pushes so many images of what we should be that it often becomes hard to accept what we are as being completely okay. But Debord’s theory appears to be coming from a nihilistic perspective, which is the opposite of my beliefs.

Such social pressures as I’ve discussed often force a negative view of humanity into our periphery that makes it difficult not to become disenfranchised. These pressures are constructs. Though they’re dominant and often seem necessary, they’re not the only experience of life on offer. We don’t have the power as individuals to eradicate these constructs, but we can eradicate their ability to intrude on our values.

Fundamentally, I feel that individuality and compassion contribute to what gives me enough faith in humanity. I think it becomes easy to only see the negatives I’ve mentioned, but not see the wider picture: to become afraid of viewing the world too “idealistically” if you even find the remotest spark of optimism or hope.

Why have I so often been afraid that things are “getting too good so something bad will probably happen soon”, or worried about how much I matter to those who matter to me and shamefully chosen to give up reaching out?

But I’ve discovered it’s important not to participate so much in the cauldron of malice and general apathy that exists too prominently in our society, even if it’s “negativity in response to negativity”. Why am I worried about coming off as too bold as I discuss the simple, yet undeniable significance of actually caring about other people? Even though I do see and encounter people who are kind and caring every day.

Yet I feel like this is often overlooked; we tend to dwell on things that have gone wrong for a while after, but what about dwelling on things that go right? Or simply – being empathetic and forgiving towards others, rather than being afraid of the vulnerability this exposes us to.

So many whispers of significance are drowned out by the shouts of things that are less important. But maybe that happens for a reason—to teach us to distinguish what truly matters.

The way to hold onto values, while growing in experience, is to tune into the whispers, but to be aware of what is being yelled at us and to whisper questions back – has compassion become a radical value?

By Heather Grant

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