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Wise Compassion #MondayMusings #1000Speak

A year ago, Lizzi Lewis set off a storm with her post titled, We all need the village. It resulted in a movement called 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion, which saw hundreds of bloggers writing through the year on the subject of compassion, listening, etc.  On 20th February, the movement celebrated its first year and bloggers are invited to add their posts on compassion.

As I began to think of the subject of compassion and kindness, I thought about how sometimes our compassion can be misplaced and might actually end up doing more harm than good. Let me give you a few examples to explain.

A woman has an alcholic husband. He drinks, goes around well-dressed on a fancy motorcycle and doesn’t do a stroke of work. With two young children to support, the woman has to work hard. How does the man finance his habit? His wife buys him alchohol every day as he cannot do without it. Is she being compassionate towards her husband? Or is she enabling him to be a drunk and sponge?

A friend lives beyond her means. She’s maxed out her credit cards and now wants to go shopping for what you know is something she doesn’t really need. She asks you to loan her some money and starts to cry when you don’t give it to her. How can you bear to see your friend cry. You reach for your wallet and hand her the money. Compassion, friendship or enabling behaviour?

Wise Compassion or Idiot Compassion

I like the distinction made in Buddist teaching between wise compassion and idiot compassion. ‘Idiot compassion’ was termed by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. His disciple, Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön, explains idiot compassion: It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s what’s called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering.

Wise compassion sees a genuine need and tries to respond in the best possible way. Idiot compassion is giving people what they want, mostly because you feel uncomfortable with their pain or discomfort. It is a selfish sort of reaching out because it is done to make  you feel comfortable and is the easiest option. Wise compassion may not always make us good and might require us to move out of our comfort zone to truly make a difference.

Let me end today’s musings with a story as told by Max Lucado.

A lighthouse keeper who worked on a rocky stretch of coastline received oil once a month to keep his light burning. Not being far from a village, he had frequent guests. One night a woman needed oil to keep her family warm. Another night a father needed oil for his lamp. Then another needed oil to lubricate a wheel. All the requests seemed legitimate, so the lighthouse keeper tried to meet them all. Toward the end of the month, however, he ran out of oil, and his lighthouse went dark, causing several ships to crash on the coastline. The man was reproved by his superiors, “You were given the oil for one reason,” they said, “to keep the light burning.” Max Lucado, Just Like Jesus: A Heart Like His

Let’s remember, that compassion too is a gift that we must use wisely.


We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.
– Marcel Proust


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  1. aymen aymen March 13, 2016

    I agree, if we keep fulfilling unreasonable demands, it will leave a vacuum within us.. Meaningful post, and thank you for sharing this story.

  2. Lori Carlson Lori Carlson February 29, 2016

    This is so beautifully written. I gave up the idiot compassion a long time ago as I got tired of enabling those who actually abused my good will. Thank you for explaining the difference so well. Have a great week!

  3. Kala Kala February 26, 2016

    The examples were pretty striking and clearly drove home the point. Enjoyed reading this Corinne. Actually very true. Even I am guilty of practising idiot compassion, more out of lack of patience and sometimes out of guilt.

  4. Vishal Bheeroo Vishal Bheeroo February 25, 2016

    It’s a great post Corinne on the right compassion and love the lesson in the end. We should help people who deserve it.

  5. Darla M Sands Darla M Sands February 24, 2016

    Wise words. I try to live by this philosophy. It’s isn’t always easy, though. Be well!

  6. Anamika Agnihotri Anamika Agnihotri February 24, 2016

    The beauty of Buddhism is that it makes spirituality simple to understand and practice in our daily lives. Classification of the term compassion into idiot compassion and wise compassion is new and simpler for me. I can see myself practicing both of these at different times with my son. I realise when I have the strength and energy in my mind, I am able to use wise compassion with him and I am idiotically compassionate at other times.
    Anamika Agnihotri recently posted..5 expectations from a homemaker – #Monday MusingsMy Profile

  7. Aditi Aditi February 24, 2016

    You’ve put it so well Corinne, helping those in genuine need vs giving into wants of others. There is a sense of responsibility in compassion too.
    Aditi recently posted..The Other SideMy Profile

  8. Eli Eli February 24, 2016

    Interesting read Corinne- and true, I think sometimes we think we show compassion and help and then its a misunderstood or idiotic way of compassion… Very true- compassion is a gift but we must use it wisely … Made me think more over this reading through your post – thanks:-)
    Eli recently posted..Hummus on a Golden plateMy Profile

  9. Shilpa Garg Shilpa Garg February 23, 2016

    Idiot compassion is so commonly seen.It takes wisdom and courage to not give in to the unhealthy demands of people around us.

  10. Ira Ira February 23, 2016

    I agree with your point of view, sometimes we go overboard with the feeling aspect creating more damage than lending help. Is it the ‘punya’ that people strive for or the lack of vision, don’t know but it does acts as a two-way sword!
    Ira recently posted..Pity Does Not Work, Show Me the WayMy Profile

  11. Lisa Lisa February 23, 2016

    Very true, Corinne – sometimes the “tough love” approach is the best one.

  12. Sunita Saldhana Sunita Saldhana February 23, 2016

    Hmmm. Having my morning cup of tea while reading this and musing. It’s so true.Never really thought much of it before. But it’s right there and we do it all the time, without ever stopping to think. In fact we feel so good about it. Arrey, I helped someone no? Thanks . Now I will be more aware. I love the way you have written it!

  13. Live by Surprise ( Live by Surprise ( February 23, 2016

    I hadn’t heard of the Buddhist’s teachings – but I’m well familiar with idiot compassion (and i’ve fallen prey to it myself). It takes some time to recognize enabling behavior. Lovely post.

  14. Martha Orlando Martha Orlando February 23, 2016

    Yes, there is definitely a difference between true compassion and just feeling sorry for someone. I love how you described it here, Corinne!
    Happened to find you on Google today (I don’t visit often enough). For some reason, I’m no longer getting email notifications that you’ve posted a blog. I’ll check on that!
    Blessings, my friend!

  15. carol Schepper carol Schepper February 23, 2016

    It is very true that merely giving in to someone’s wants is not actually true compassion – enabling is a good word choice in many cases, and rather than compassion, I think it arises more out of sympathy. There is a tendency to confuse sympathy, compassion & empathy, but all are distinct. I find the grayer areas to be harder to grapple with than the more obvious enabling. When someone on the street tells you a hard luck take of some sort, and you are dubious – do you decline to help? Offer money? Decline, but come back with food? These are the choices I find hardest, and yet in most cases, I err on the side of believing. Because I’d rather be taken advantage of once or twice than miss the opportunity to help someone genuinely in need. Oddly, I found that that this has become my more likely response the older I’ve gotten…. 🙂

  16. Vasantha Vivek Vasantha Vivek February 22, 2016

    I just thought compassion is compassion. But now only understood the difference between wise and idiot compassion. I figure out myself in wise compassion and V in idiot compassion …. 😛

  17. Carol Cassara Carol Cassara February 22, 2016

    Enabling. You know, more harm is done in the name of giving people what they want than we might realize. Thoughtful post for me this a.m.

  18. BellyBytes BellyBytes February 22, 2016

    Like most things in life, there is a tipping point when compassion enables a bad habit/attitude so one should always be careful about using this quality. Thanks for pointing this out.

  19. Payal Agarwal Payal Agarwal February 22, 2016

    I agree, if we keep fulfilling unreasonable demands, it will leave a vacuum within us.. Meaningful post, and thank you for sharing this story.
    Payal Agarwal recently posted..Pauses and reflectionsMy Profile

  20. nabanita nabanita February 22, 2016

    I have seen this kind of ‘Idiot Compassion’ often in families, covering for members who are actually in need for profession help..I’m not saying it is easy to distinguish between the two and try to choose wisely but we need to try

  21. Lizzi Lizzi February 22, 2016

    I think you’re right about the ways we operate seemingly towards others, but with a result of alleviating our own discomfort rather than necessarily acting in our best interests. Seems to be the closer we are to someone, the more this becomes a challenge. Compassion to strangers is probably a lot easier, and simpler for being more finite, on the whole.

    That said, the story of the lighthouse keeper is compelling. Thanks for the thinks 🙂
    Lizzi recently posted..TRUTH, and other lies we tell.My Profile

  22. richa singh richa singh February 22, 2016

    To my much surprise we were having a similar discussion in whatsapp group of school friends this morning. And to my understanding I believe being good is more of a responsibility than duty..

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