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Compassion and Cruelty – Two Sides of the Same Coin?

I was watching a movie. A thriller that involved serial killer. In the end the serial killer gets killed in gruesome way. As I watched the bad guy in pain, somewhere in my brain, it felt good. Not only the pains of the serial killer justified, they were welcome. He was a bad guy and he deserved to suffer.

After the movie was over, I wondered about my experience.  I am a compassionate, sensitive person. I have neurological explanation of my compassion. Apparently some people are born with a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system. If the sight of pain of other people triggers strong pain signals in your brain, you may be of this type of person. Your compassion comes from being able to feel what others feel, literally.

I didn’t like the neurological explanation when I read it. Because suddenly it made my virtue just another aspect of my personality. There was nothing special about compassion. From that article’s viewpoint, mother Teresa was just an neurological anomaly, likely a person with too active sympathetic nervous system response.

But indeed that explanation and several things that followed made sense.

That’s why I was confused at my response. It seems my compassion was conditional, not absolute. If I have overactive sympathetic nervous system, it was not only capable of triggering pain from other peoples’ pain, but it was also capable of invoking pleasure from other peoples’ pain under certain conditions.

I came from a well loving family that took good care of me. I generally did not suffer any hardship. I was not discriminated, persecuted or suffered major injustice. I believed this world was good to me and was made of good people. Thus other peoples’ pain triggered pain in my brain.

If I believed this world was an unjust place, if I had suffered in this world, the wiring in my brain could be switched such that other peoples’ pain would have triggered pleasure in my brain instead of pain. I would still be person with overactive sympathetic nervous system. But I would not be compassionate. I would be a cruel person. So what made me compassionate in one circumstances was itself capable of making me cruel in another one. It sounds very ironic, but that small flick of switch in brain is what separates kind and compassionate people.



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