Can We Cultivate Compassion?

Suzanne Cooke, RSCJ
I enjoy listening to On Being with Krista Tippett each Sunday morning. A couple of weeks ago Richard Davidson spoke on "Love and Learning". There were several important topics covered during the interview, but I have continued to think about Davidson’s response to Tippett’s question: "Can we cultivate compassion?"
Richard Davidson is a neuroscientist who has developed a curriculum for a compassionate classroom, the Kindness Curriculum. This work has emerged from discoveries in his brain imaging laboratory and his Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Davidson believes… “that we are hardwired to learn compassion as we are hardwired to learn language.” As I listened to this discussion, I immediately thought of Lisa Miller and her work on spirituality.

Back to Davidson’s conversation with Tippett. He responded to her question about compassion:

I think the evidence today is even stronger than it was when we spoke about it last. The reason I liken it to language is that we also know that we come into the world with a biological propensity for language, but it requires that we be nurtured in a normal linguistic community for that propensity to be expressed. There are case studies of feral children who’ve been raised in the wild; they don’t develop normal language. So even though there’s a biological propensity, it requires this context, the appropriate context, to nurture it. And I think the same is true for kindness. We come into the world with this innate propensity, but for this propensity to be expressed, it requires nurturing.

…so, if we're in a context where people are doing kindness around us, we will osmotically absorb it, and it will be nurtured.

Think of the implications for educators and parents, for coaches and tutors, for grandparents and school administrators.  As one listens or reads the interview, one realizes the essential need for curricular programs that support students from the earliest age to hone these hardwired propensities of spirituality, kindness and compassion. Far from being "soft" skills, they prove to be essential if the young people entrusted to us are to develop the fullness of their humanity.


Davidson’s Interview with On Being with Krista Tippett
Schools of the Sacred Heart share in the educational mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart as articulated in the Goals and Criteria. The structure supporting Sacred Heart education in Canada and the United States includes the Conference of Sacred Heart Education and the Network of Sacred Heart Schools.  Together they provide services and programs to ensure vitality of mission for the member schools sponsored by the Society of the Sacred Heart.