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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