Watching people obliges us to compassion

Science reveals interesting things — take for instance, the importance of compassion.

A recent article in Science magazine highlighted the decades-long work of Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt. They have studied about 1,000 New Zealanders from childhood to middle age. The Dunedin study has followed these people throughout their lifetimes, and 95 percent of participants have stayed with the study.

The results? “Moffitt and Caspi offer no grand unified theory of human development: Humans are too complicated, too irrational, to sum up in a principle. What their research gives them is not so much a conclusion about humans as a particular point of view,” concludes Douglas Starr.

The Dunedin subjects are now 45. One thing discovered is that “just over a fifth” account for most of the “social costs: crime, welfare payments, hospitalizations, cigarette purchases, fatherless child-rearing, and other indicators of social dysfunction.” Starr:

What’s wrong with these people? Moffitt and Caspi went back and looked at their data from age 3. The target group seemed cursed from the beginning: They scored low on early language skills, fine and gross motor skills, neurological health, and self-control. Often they also grew up in poverty and suffered maltreatment. All through life their disadvantages haunted them. “They didn’t get a fair start right out of the starting block,” Moffitt says. “You can’t expect people with this kind of childhood to do well.”

They even seem to age faster than those who had a better start. In their cohort, Moffitt and Caspi have been finding signs of aging starting in the 30s. They’re particularly struck by the effects of stress at an early age. Childhood abuse seems to erode telomeres—the caps at the end of chromosomes, associated with cell preservation—and that, in turn, may accelerate aging.

“All people are not created equal,” Moffitt says. “Some have real gifts and talents, and some have real problems right out of the starting block. Once we accept that, we can’t dodge the responsibility for social action.”

Watching people’s lives unfold over decades, she adds, “obliges compassion.”

Stated another way, the Dunedin study shows the importance of the biblical principle of loving others as much as ourselves and of special care for Jesus’ “least of these.” All people have equal value, but all people do not have equal talents and problems.

We need each other.

. . . From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded (Luke 12:48, NRSV).


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