I’ve hated the idea of compassion for most of my life. Mostly because I’ve been told I need more of it.
For 10 years I tried to change my father. He was a serious over-eater and prescription pill popper. For 20 years before that, I tried to take away the bottle he loved so much. It never worked and he died. For much of my life his behavior, along with the attitudes of many folks I try to help to this day, make me ask, “why bother?”
After my dad had a stroke he was like a superhero who lost his powers. I tried making him better by gentle nudges, by cooking his food, by education. When that didn’t work, I tried anger and force. When I did that, people told me I was wrong and heartless; that I should just be happy he’s still with me. People suck.
For the longest time I believed what I was told about compassion. I all but gave up on my ability to offer it because I thought I did it wrong. I thought compassion was a trait like blue eyes and blond hair. You’re either born with it, or you’re not.
Of course compassion is nurturing at times. It’s the soft look into the crying eyes of someone you can’t bear to see suffer. It’s holding them until it doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. But, it’s also back-handing them for making the same mistake over and over again. It’s telling someone how immature and selfish they’re being. Compassion is hugging just as much as it is head locking.
If compassion can’t be all powerful, open and edgy at the same time, then it’s not compassion, it’s coddling.
A Buddhist named Chogyam Trungpa coined the phrase “idiot compassion.” It looks like giving more money to a broke gambler, or a sip to an alcoholic in withdrawal, or donuts to a fat dad. That’s not compassion. That’s what people do to make themselves feel better because someone else is suffering.
True compassion is suffering right along side someone you care for. It’s not making excuses for them. It’s certainly not about making their pain go away temporally so you feel better. Compassion is discomfort.
It wasn’t ever easy or comfortable telling my dad he was going to die early because of his choices. But it was compassionate. It was right. And doing what’s right, no matter how much it hurts, is as compassionate as it gets.
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