Creative Compassion

Dialogue then requires that we use our hearts and minds to create compassion in our relationships. Here is where the older term imagination fits. The way we “imagine” the world, or a particular portion of it, massively affects how we think about the world, or that portion of it, and hence, how we act in it. It is the imagination that is the main source of human creativity, and, out of that creativity, we combine empathy with critical thinking to sustain dialogue about differing values.

Consciously choosing which values to hold and how to relate to the choices of others and their values molds our capacity for creative and compassionate choices. The basic principles of "creative compassion" are:

  1. Know ourselves by becoming conscious of our own values.
  2. Know other persons by learning their values, reducing our stereotypes and prejudices.
  3. Learn that our relations with other persons and groups are directed by our and their values and the interrelationships.
  4. Learn to practice the ability to imagine being born or raised in another religion/culture/gender/time.


CREATIVE COMPASSION - Principle 1: “Know ourselves by becoming conscious of our own values.”

Explanation: We are given innumerable values via the experiences we have from childhood through adulthood from our families and surroundings. In the beginning, these values are simply accepted. With age, however, we usually begin slowly to become aware of the unconscious values we have absorbed, and we begin the often painful process to question them. 

One may have learned to analyze a situation with impeccable critical thinking but be totally blind about how one and/or others fits into a context or situation. With this blindness, differences can become a source of threat.

Differences are inevitable; conflict and violence are choices. In themselves, differences are simply that: differences. It is when they are perceived as a threat to one’s identity, core values, or cherished beliefs that they become divisive and problematic. Compassion seems impossible. Human beings are created with a built-in mechanism to respond to threat in ways that protect them, which can be valuable but which can also present problems. Ultimately, however, it is not our differences that divide us but, rather, how we choose to engage with each other and with those differences.

Conflict can arise from differences in identity and perception, as well as from stereotypes, prejudice, and assumptions we make. This is especially true if we feel our core values are threatened. When people feel threatened, biology makes it hard to be reasonable. One part of our brain, the amygdala, takes over and we freeze, fight, or flee from the danger, and this can shut down the thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, for a time.

How we identify ourselves can help us keep from freezing, fighting, or fleeing.  Identity is composed of many different aspects, including family, community, ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, gender, age, peer group, educational level, and profession, among others. We are all complex, multidimensional human beings with regard to our identity. In addition, each of us has developed, over our lifetimes, a set of “core values” in which we deeply believe. These core values have been transmitted to us by our parents, our religions, our culture, and other sources. Positive examples of this might include, but are not limited to, the following: honoring our parents; being compassionate, merciful, and loving toward others; telling the truth; and doing justice through charity. Negative examples are things that we have learned to avoid doing: lying, committing adultery, stealing, and other criminal actions.

When we encounter others whose identity is different from ours, it is normal that we take notice of the differences. We generalize about the community we belong to and recognize that the other community is different. When differences threaten something important to us and become a source of fear or threat, trouble can arise. A neutral generalization becomes a defensive stereotype. When a stereotype forms, we tend to lose our ability to recognize what we share. We over-focus on the aspect of identity that divides us and lose sight of our common humanity. When a stereotype grows more rigid, we forget or do not know how to connect to all the aspects of identity in ourselves and in the other person. The “waterline of visibility" or the "diversity iceberg" (see graphic below) displays how our perception becomes blocked, and we do not see to the deeper levels of identity in self and other.


Exercise: Using the diagram above, make a list of four values/traits that are important to your identity. Think first of the traits you strive to attain/maintain/improve for yourself. Examples might include punctuality, honesty, politeness, orderliness, compassion, and so on. After completing your list, put them in order of priority from greater to lesser importance for you. Then consider which traits are visible and which ones are under the line of visibility. What would you like to make more visible?

CREATIVE COMPASSION - Principle 2: “Know other persons by learning their values, reducing our stereotypes and prejudice.”

Explanation: Perception refers to how we see, understand, and interpret situations and the people around us. Our perceptions can be shaped by many factors, including family, religion and belief systems, culture and ethnicity, age, gender, education, and life experience. Our perceptions are also often heavily influenced by our deepest values, past experience, and worldview. These can influence what we are aware of and choose to pay attention to. They can also influence how we interpret the data and how we give meaning to certain events and experiences. Our core values, experiences, aspirations, and assumptions all affect how we perceive reality.

Prejudice and Stereotypes
Prejudice refers to something that we perceive as negative that is not based on either reason or direct experience. Children in one community have refused food, for example, when it is offered by a person of a different religion. When asked why, they have replied, “because we hate (Muslims)/ (Christians).” They hate the “Other,” although they may have never even met a Muslim/Christian. They have learned such beliefs from other children, family, media, or other sources and accepted them as true.

People may be prejudiced against others who differ from them on an important aspect, for example, religion, ethnic group, or nationality. Prejudice may be defined as making negative judgments about an individual or group without direct evidence, and it often involves overgeneralization where fear has intruded into one’s feelings. We can overgeneralize from individual experience and make attributions and assumptions about otherswhich may or may not be accurate, as applied to that particular individual. When we generalize qualities from an individual (whether positive or negative) to other individuals or groups, we are engaging in stereotyping. Stereotypes can be positive (“because this person and I share the same religion, she must be a good person”) or negative (“he is a politician, so he must be corrupt, because I read and hear about politicians being corrupt so often”). Whether stereotypes are positive or negative, however, they are not necessarily accurate as applied to individuals (or to groups).

Dialogue offers the opportunity to overcome stereotyping and prejudice by developing relationships with and getting to know people as individuals. Direct communication allows for the opportunity to check out assumptions that one might have about others. It can also contribute to learning about the “filters” one may not even be aware of, which can lead to overgeneralization and stereotyping. To recognize these “filters” one may need to identify what is feeling threatening.

Exercise: Think of two persons you admire and two persons whom you distrust. What values can you name that the persons you admire hold? What values do the other two persons hold? Can you identify the source of distrust in yourself? What value can you name that all four persons might hold in common? Does recognizing this common value help dispel any of your distrust? How or why not?

CREATIVE COMPASSION - Principle 3: “Learn that our relations with other persons and groups are directed by our and their values and the interrelationships.”

Explanation: When a person feels threatened, biology can make it hard to remain nondefensive. We must actively address our instinct to freeze, fight, or flee in order to protect ourselves. Scientists believe this reaction was designed to protect people from physical danger, but it can happen just as much when one is threatened by words. When people experience a sense of threat to important aspects of their identities or core values, their brains tend to respond automatically, and they seek to defend what they hold dear.

Emotional Hijacking
When someone believes that his/her values and identity are threatened, his/her emotions can “hijack” the thinking part of the brain, preventing it from evaluating the situation. In this situation, threat and conflict can narrow one’s perceptions, thinking, and awareness. The ability to reason and engage other people with respect and interest disappears, along with open-heartedness and curiosity. When this happens, people tend to pay selective attention to what others are saying, and it becomes difficult to listen accurately. Instead, people listen with selective attention, focusing on hearing the differences, defending themselves, and finding the flaws in what the other person is saying. It is common to react quickly and speak like a person under attack, becoming more judgmental, belittling, and blaming; people can be “triggered” into making attributions and assumptions of the “Other"’s motivations. They tend to make more statements and ask fewer questions; the questions are often designed to trap and attack.

What is lost is the complexity of the “Other” and the many other aspects of identity illustrated in the “diversity iceberg” (see Principle 1 above). People lose sight of their common humanity and the richness that is typically present when one views the world. This kind of situation invites people to reduce things to simple labelsthings that are too simple to be true. It is common to understand the situation in the following terms:

I AM / WE ARE                                              YOU ARE / THEY ARE

Right                                                                 Wrong

Good                                                                 Bad

Wise                                                                  Foolish / Stupid

Virtuous                                                            Evil

Caring                                                               Selfish

Reasonable                                                       Irrational

Supported by facts                                            Ignoring facts

Open and honest                                               Devious

Deserving of success                                         Deserving of failure

People are more likely to blame or judge those from whom they differ. Differences become more visible, even as people tend to minimize differences with those with whom they are in agreement. It is not hard to see what others do that makes the situation worse, even as people are less likely to be able to see and understand their own contributions to a conflict.

Dialogue offers an opportunity for people to share their unique perceptions of situations and to be heard and not attacked or judged. Sometimes, through sharing perceptions in dialogue, people can identify common ground. Other times, common ground may not be found, but dialogue can still offer the opportunity for peaceful coexistence and re-building community through thoughtful, deep speaking and respectful listening, often agreeing to disagree and letting differences stand without negative reaction.

Exercise: Repeat the exercise from Principle 2, naming first two groups/organizations you admire and two you distrust. Do you notice any difference in your feelings when thinking about a group instead of an individual; if so, what accounts for that difference? What steps can you see yourself taking to establish trust where it is lacking?

CREATIVE COMPASSION - Principle 4: “Learn to practice the ability to imagine being born or raised in another religion/culture/gender/time.”

Explanation: Once we have learned to recognize our own values without putting down people who hold different values, we can begin to assess differences in light of new perceptions. We know that the other values deserve to be understood except where human life is violated. With tolerance and appreciation for difference comes the capacity to use one’s imagination with creativity. And, with this creative use of the imagination comes empathy. Differences can be examined with compassion.

Exercise: Imagine that you were born and raised Muslim, Jewish, or religiously other than your real family. Imagine a) how you might feel about yourself as Muslim, b) how you might feel about others from this new perspective, c) how others might feel about you, d) how you might feel about how others think of you. Try the same exercise as if born a) at a different time period, b) as a different gender, c) as in a different economic class than the one you are now in. Notice as you do this exercise any of your own present presuppositions that the exercise is likely to bring to your conscious reflection. Remember to share your reflections with a mentor or friend when possible.

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