❤️>H8: From Disgust to Compassion

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Deep within our human brain lies a small region where our sense of disgust for self or other is formed, processed, and triggered. But in the exact same brain region, so too is compassion formed, processed, and triggered. You can make a conscious choice to go in one of two directions: to harm or to comfort; to hate or to love; to destroy or to support. Social psychologist Heidi Lepper Barrett shares more in this reflection.

Despite all of our complexities, God made us actually quite simple in certain ways. We cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time. We cannot be angry and laughing in humor at the same time. We also cannot be disgusted and show compassion (or love) at the same time. While we are complex in the ways and reasons of our feelings and expressions, we are quite simple in that we can only experience one strong emotion at a time.

We know that God’s two greatest commands are to love Him above all things with the entirety of our hearts, minds, and souls and to love each other as ourselves. I do not doubt for a second that we all wake every day with the desire to do just that. But I also do not doubt for a second that we often fall short in that love for Him and each other and I will go so far as to suggest that it is often a lack of awareness of this ‘one at a time’ concept.

Look back at that title, see the word compassion? Ever notice that the word compassion holds within it the word ‘passion.’ As a follower of Christ, the word passion carries special meaning for you. Put that in your back pocket for now, I will circle back to it. But first I have to describe a bit about disgust.

“There you go again! What’s wrong with you?!” Those would be what we psychologists refer to as ‘shaming words.’ We might say them to ourselves or we might say them to our husbands or to our children or even to other drivers on the road or someone in line ahead of us at Target who is simply “doing things wrong!” Ever gotten just purely disgusted by another person’s behavior or perhaps even your own? Yes. We all have. Almost daily even for some.

Disgust is universally triggered in all humans by the diseased, the disfigured, the decayed and of course by bodily processes or fluids outside of our immediate family (or through trained exposure). Disgust is a universal ‘emotion program’ however that is also triggered by the ‘morally tainted.’ It is a very self-centered emotion in that these things, observed outside of ourselves, are disgusting. We find someone else’s pimple disgusting but not our own. We cannot pick up someone else’s dog mess but we can our own. We are not disgusted when our sick child coughs on us, but put a mask on the unknown child at the doctor’s office! We may have done something immoral but we justify it, we are not disgusted by it. But if someone else does something immoral we do not justify it, we are disgusted by it. For every human, when we are disgusted our heart begins to race, we believe we are right to feel disgusted (you think we all should feel as disgusted!), we crinkle up your nose and look away, we utter an ‘ugh’ or ‘ish’ sound. We seek to move away from or eradicate that thing that disgusts us. The issue is that what happens when this is another human? Or even yourself that you are so disgusted by?

What is so very compelling about disgust is that deep within our human brain lies a small brain region, the anterior insular, and it is here that the brain processes and responds to that which is diseased, disfigured, decayed, but also to that which is believed to be ‘morally tainted’ or inherently wrong. It is here that all humans begin to harm. Our sense of disgust for self or other is formed, processed, triggered in the deep recesses of our brain. But so too is compassion! And in the exact same brain region! You can make a conscious choice to go in one of two directions: to harm or to comfort; to hate or to love; to destroy or to support.

We are all full of conflicting desires and needs, at any one point we will weigh different motives and options and make a decision what to do given the situation, we may want to comfort and recoil all at the same time but be clear, one or the other will win out. The strength of our disgust and the strength of our desire to be compassionate will determine what we end up choosing. And sadly most of us choose disgust over compassion. Are you harder on yourself than you are on others? Disgust just won. Are you harder on others than you are on yourself? Disgust just won.

Did Jesus die on the Cross to show his disgust for you? No. He died to show you that no matter what you are to be loved. Do you love those highly different from you as The Passion has taught you to? Not likely yet, but one day as you pray to the Holy Spirit in a new way to have a ‘renewed mind and spirit’ you just might be able to. Since one brain area in particular is the ‘ring leader’ at creating messages of unworth (disgust) or worth (compassion) we cannot simultaneously experience both. It is one or the other. Rather than disgust, choose compassion. Rather than hate, choose Love. For that has already been done for you.

Copyright 2019 Heidi S. Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett is a native born Californian (Santa Barbara to be exact!) who made her way to Iowa after earning a Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology from the University of California in 1996. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Iowa, Heidi began teaching at Drake University in 2000. That was also the year, at age 30, she was baptized Catholic alongside her first newly born son. Heidi is married to Joe and they have two sons.