“The world is full of good people…if you can’t find one be one.”
The primary definition of the word “compassion” that pops up is: sympathetic pity and concern for the suffering and misfortunes of others. I am sure it is the word pity in that definition that just rubs me wrong. To have pity on someone it seems to me is to be quite one-sided and non-engaged. When scratching a bit deeper in trying to define compassion I came across the root from ecclesiastical Latin: “compati” which means to “suffer with”. Ecclesiastical Latin by the way was something I would mumble every Sunday as an altar boy, talk about suffering.
These days I am left to wonder if I can really feel compassion for another sentient being, and that list of sentient beings would include the planet. If I am not suffering with them then perhaps I am only engaged in what the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has called “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. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering. In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.”
Recent examples for me that I think square with what Pema is saying here and are not idiot compassion are the feelings and actions triggered when I see someone trip and fall on the street. My rush to help is so immediate and not pre-meditated that I think I may be actually capable of genuine compassion. I am someone who seems to trip and take a good header onto the pavement every couple of months. So I can empathize with the skinned knees but even more so with the embarrassment. This happened in January when walking along Market Street in San Francisco when a women hit the deck right in front of me. I responded by giving this woman what she needed, help up off the pavement.
The key component to “idiot compassion” would be the enabling. Recently helping this woman up from her tumble on Market Street was not enabling her next fall. I genuinely felt empathy for her. That women’s predicament was an easy one to relate to and respond appropriately.
Her fall happened somewhere between 4th and 12th streets along Market the epicenter for the major homeless nightmare that plagues the City. Walking this stretch provides nearly endless opportunities to practice compassion or perhaps slip into idiot compassion and only perpetuate the situation in an attempt to soothe my own soul.
It is tricky. Someone may genuinely need a couple bucks for food but does that apply for the next pop of heroin? I did often give change to an older fellow who almost daily panhandles in the late afternoon at the entrance to the Muni Underground at Van Ness. Heroin addicts rarely keep a schedule to say nothing of being on time.
What is a compassionate response to the person addicted? Safe injection sites come to mind. I often find myself recalling the infamous words of Jerry Garcia on the matter of drugs: “people do drugs because they make them feel good”. Is it compassion or idiot compassion to help someone feel good no matter how fleeting?
For me personally it is often helpful to know how to respond or at least advocate for the compassionate response by observing what is clearly not compassion. A recent very glaring example of absolutely no compassion was the stage 4-pancreatic-cancer patient in a hospital in Bolivar Missouri who had to submit to a police search of some of his belongings. This was after some jerk called 911 to report the smell of marijuana coming from his hospital room. Strange since he only used edibles and none of those were even found. Hopefully this was not a nurse or other health care provider who made the call. I am sure if such heartless health care providers exist that there is one of the Tibetan realms of hell reserved for them.
These are such trying times in our country today. Examples of the lack of compassion are legion from border walls to family separation to Muslim bans to the assault on abortion rights to the lack of affordable health care for millions and the untold ramifications around the denial of climate change.
To keep our heads above water though we must realize that the world is really full of good people and if we can’t find one in the moment we can always be one.