The Fierce Compassion of Wonder Woman and Why it Matters

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

I must confess, the recent Wonder Woman movie, directed by Patty Jenkins, made me cry, in a good way. After several years engaged in the study of compassion, I can’t remember seeing a film that portrayed more clearly the full unbridled power of fierce compassion. Wonder Woman’s Diana fights fiercely for her love of humanity. She knows that though she remains different from humans, she feels love, and a passionate desire to protect, to relieve suffering. She moves with fierce determination, unapologetic, unwavering, devoid of self-consciousness, focused only on the objective of peace and justice. Diana doesn’t care what you think about her. She filters out, as irrelevant noise, the sexist judgments and wardrobe recommendations of her onlookers. What remains is her compassionate commitment to a cause greater than self.

Compassion, requires something courageous of us. It requires us to care, with a full bodied, rock you to the core, openness to pain. To feel compassion, we need to feel just a bit of the suffering we witness. It requires us to see some of our own humanity in another, and to feel a strong desire to alleviate that suffering. As more stories of sexual abuse by prominent people come out, victims hope for some compassion. Can you put yourself in the shoes of a young person looking for a job, yearning to feel valued as an employee, only to find herself in some pervert’s sexual fantasy? Can you relate to someone seeking safety for their family after leaving a war-ravaged nation? Can you imagine what it feels like when you’re seen as inferior because of your gender, race, religion or sexual orientation? When we can imagine ourselves in the other’s shoes, we are more likely to act in a moral way, according to a recent study. Compassion makes for a more just and moral world.

We live in a time of cruel put downs, where it’s easier to blame the weak, vulnerable or victimized. Who wants to be weak or vulnerable or victimized anyway? Who wants to identify with the pain of a refugee, or a rape victim, or a victim of a hate crime? We want to keep that other person or group at arm’s length, so we remain out of harms reach. When we shut down our human compassion, it gives us a temporary feeling of psychological safety. We read social media missives with a subtext that goes something like this: “I’m not like those people, so I can feel superior, better, stronger, wiser, and safer.” We call our political opponents “morons” and we fume with indignation when asked to consider the feelings of those different from us. We get angry when we can’t understand something, because it makes us feel stupid. We want to feel smart, not stupid, so we stick with what we understand, and with the people who speak our language, both literally and figuratively.

This “us versus them” thinking provides momentary relief from the stress of caring about others.  The down side of that temporary relief is that one day, we will be the one suffering, the weak one, the victim, the lonely one. One thing certain about the human condition is that no one gets through life without suffering. Suffering connects us all, rich or poor, sick or well, privileged or victimized, we all suffer. When we treat ourselves and others with compassion, we do get some wonderful benefits. Our brain produces chemicals that lower our nervous system arousal and provide us with comfort. We learn better, heal faster from wounds, manage stress better, and feel happier. Compassion reduces our feelings of alienation, loneliness, and despair. When we can open to feeling something for others, we open to our own vulnerability and pave the way for self-compassion. The capacity to comfort yourself when you’re down, grows when your compassion for others grows. And your compassion for others grows when you connect with your own fragility and embrace it.

We’re living in a time of tough talk. It reminds me of the way little children get puffed up with power when they play army. When you can make somebody fall with your toy gun, you feel a thrill of power and in the pretend war, you feel a little safer. In the real grown-up world, shooting others (both literally and figuratively) makes us less safe. Generating internet wars with opponents stirs the pot of conflict and leads to more reactivity, more dysfunction.

If you want to cultivate a greater sense of compassion, and reap it’s many benefits, try the following:

  • Read literary fiction. Studies show that our capacity for empathy and compassion increases when we read stories. Your imagination inhabits stories that can transport you to a different culture and help you identify with the protagonist in deep and meaningful ways. Plus you get smarter, and grow a better vocabulary. To better understand feminism read Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale. To get a taste of Afghan culture and the immigrant’s dilemma read The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Want to know what it feels like to be autistic, read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. You can find good literary fiction by perusing National Book Award nominees lists, New York Times book reviews, and your local librarian’s suggestions.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation trains the mind to pay attention to the present moment, without judging that moment. Judgments like, “good/bad, safe/not safe” stiffen our mind to a binary approach to perception. It’s very limiting. When you meditate, the body relaxes more, you literally see more of what surrounds you, and you make better decisions.
  • Volunteer. When you volunteer, preferably as part of a group, (like Habitat for Humanity) it lowers blood pressure and stress. It makes you feel better about yourself, more competent, and capable, even if your life circumstances remain the same.
  • Play with others. When you play music with others, or engage in sports or group crafting sessions, you can feel a greater sense of empathy and connection. Children raised playing music in orchestras and bands show higher levels of empathy for others.

While we can’t all have the super powers of a super hero, we can each bring something unique and wonderful to the world. Let’s choose fierce compassion over cowardly cruelty.

Photos courtesy of: Sebastian Vital, Vladimi Pustovit and David in Lisburn