Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another sentient being. I must admit that I live in a bit of a privileged cocoon these days especially since I have not worked at Denver Health now for nearly two years.  The most recent job before this full-fledged retirement was in the Urgent Care Clinic, which provided endless opportunity to test my empathic skills. I would then have the opportunity to turn this into compassionate action in the form of some sort of “health care’ delivered hopefully not just out of a sense of duty but with at least a smattering of loving kindness.

This was not always an easy task for me especially as I was approaching the three-quarter mark of my 12-hour shift. Empathy definitely seemed to come easier during the first few hours of the shift with the morning coffee still goosing me along. Though I do not think caffeine is a prerequisite for compassionate action by any means it does seem to help.

There is a rub though when it comes to being compassionate and acting on that empathy. This would be when we are engaged in what some Buddhists call “idiot compassion”. The term may or may not have originated with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and explained by Pema Chodron as follows:

“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.”

The key here for me in Pema’s words is “am I doing it for myself”. I live in central Denver and make a habit of walking many places: to the gym, the store, to catch a bus or go out to eat.  This walking business puts me in close proximity with the many homeless who frequent the neighborhood. I can I suppose almost always muster some empathy for the many I see even on a short walk, though some more than others. My years of nursing in the public sector have resulted in my forming almost instantaneous impressions, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, of the folks I see living on the streets. I assume he is nodding from a recent pop of heroin or she really needs to lay-off the meth or that guy needs to be back on his psych meds. Little ladies carting lots of stuff and most probably having some sort of psychiatric issues always get money from me in addition to my empathic unsolicited judgment.

I do though most of the time appreciate just how much hard work is involved in being homeless and on the streets for all of them. The key for me once these folks are encountered is how to act toward them with true compassion and not as an idiot trying to make myself feel good. I am open to suggestions here.

I watch very little local news checking the 9News site on line in the morning to see who was murdered last night and what the weather is going to be. I was though pleasantly surprised by a recent piece of investigative journalism done by channel 9. Link provided here:


Channel 9 interviewed 100 homeless people asking various questions. The most startling piece of information gleaned was that 70 of the 100 interviewed preferred to be on the streets even in winter weather rather than in a shelter bed at night. I am very aware that many in our world today have no empathy at all for the homeless so compassion, idiot in nature or not, is unlikely to be coming from them. For those of us able to feel empathy beyond our own tribe what is the best way to act compassionately with loving-kindness and not as an idiot looking only to make ourselves feel better?

It seems that shelter beds and free turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas are certainly worthwhile efforts that can be supported without it being idiot compassion as long as it doesn’t stop there. Many of the activities aimed at the homeless including handing them cash on street corners do very little to address the root inequities rampant in our American society today.  Having had the privileged opportunity to spend time in several large European cities, all with much better social safety nets than we do, the degree to which homelessness exists is much greater it seems in this country. When I am in San Francisco at the B&B the many European guests no matter their home country are always amazed, often distressed and actually a bit dumbfounded by the number of homeless on the streets. 

In order to address this we need revolutionary change in this country, to demand anything less makes us all into idiots. We need to be off to the voting booth and the barricades and in addition I personally plan to re-join the Democratic Socialist Party – a group I first connected with in 1968 while at the University of Illinois. Their defining meme is “produce according to your means and take only according to your needs”. Nothing idiotic about that!