I have a relative who has made some unwise choices in his life. Those choices are now catching up to him. The family has suggested changes and offered help that could improve his circumstances. He says he understands and accepts, but it’s not long before he lapses into his old patterns of behavior, mystifying and hurting those who have offered to help him.
But what they call helping, I call enabling.
What they call compassion, I call idiocy.
When it comes to compassion, we are either wise or we are idiots.
Compassion is desiring that beings be free from suffering. As philosopher Ken Wilber says, “Real compassion includes wisdom and so it makes judgments of care and concern; it says some things are good, and some things are bad, and I will choose to act only on those things that are informed by wisdom and care.” Wise compassion is skillful compassion; it sees the whole situation and aims to bring release from suffering.
However, idiot compassion, an expression coined by Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, involves giving people what they want because we can’t bear to see them suffering. We do it to avoid causing offense. Rather than face any conflict, we give in to their pleas and allow them to walk all over us. This is not compassion at all. It’s an escape from our feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering. We do it for ourselves, not for them, and this kind of “compassion” ends up causing more pain to ourselves and others. Such “compassion” stems from not having the courage to say no.
For compassion to be effective, we need to first examine our actions. Are our actions going to be of real help and value? Or will they actually be supporting an already unhealthy situation? Staying in an abusive relationship is not compassion. The compassionate thing to do is to leave, no matter how difficult. The dynamic must change if healing is to occur.
We also need to be aware of the ego’s need to take credit for doing good deeds. The ego has an appetite for looking good in front of others. It wants to be liked. It wants to be everyone’s friend. It fears being unpopular. This occurs when we give for our own benefit, not for the recipient’s. Our giving has less to do with what the other person needs, but plenty to do with trying to escape our own feelings of inadequacy.
It takes courage and wisdom to be a truly compassionate person.
As far as my relative goes, he needs to hit that kind of bottom where the people he loves stop giving him the wrong kind of compassion. There will be pain, no doubt, but causing pain is not the same as causing harm. It’s the kind of pain that is needed in order for healing to occur. Boundaries will need to be set. Support structures will need to put in place. It’s the kind of compassion that is a wake-up call for all involved.