June 16, 2010

Generosity or Idiot Compassion?

“‘Idiot compassion’ is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. 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.”

~ Pema Chodron

Compassion Can Be Complicated.

This post is inspired by a recent discussion about giving to people on the street. The key word is care—both caring for others, and being careful.

On a couple of hot summer evenings a few years ago, this guy came up to me saying he didn’t want money but was diabetic and his insulin had gone bad in the heat, and he needed a ride to the drug store. The first time I heard the story, I said, you just want a ride? That’s all? He said well…I need money, too… And, the thing was, it was clear enough, just from his bearing and complexion, that he was, truly, badly in need of something. But, from the scars on his arms and his clumsy scam, I could tell that what he needed was something other than insulin.

And I wasn’t about to help him pay for it.

Recently, I got into a discussion with this guy named Waylon who said he got irritated by the young, healthy Jack Kerouac wannabes asking him for money on the streets of Boulder…but does believe in giving to the truly needy.

I agreed, but added: needy for what?

I work with addicts in recovery, many of whom have been on and off hard drugs for decades, and the incredibly devastating effects of long term addiction can be seen in their faces and everything they do. The ones who truly make me sad, though, are those who are younger, relatively healthy and only in rehab because they got busted and it’s better than jail, who have an opportunity to change the destructive course they’re on but would rather just get out of there as soon as they can. Not that I blame them. Recovery, in most cases, involves not only the agony of withdrawal, but the hard work involved in facing the pain they’ve been running from. As most of these women have been victims of countless forms of abuse, from childhood incest to prison, that work is bound to be incredibly difficult and painful. I’d probably run away, too.

Not long ago, I saw a former rehab client on the street with a nasty looking guy I suspected was her pimp. (Considering the way he glared at me, I wasn’t about to make inquiries). No doubt, it’s only a matter of time before I see another, maybe strung out and hitting me up for cash for a fix. And I’ll want to help alleviate that suffering. But, there are two kinds of suffering involved: the short term suffering that can be alleviated by crack or heroin, and the long term suffering of addiction that will only be made worse by every fix. And that’s why I’ll say no.

The key word, I think, is care—both in the sense of caring about others and being careful about how you act on that, so that good intentions don’t lead only to more harm. A week or two ago, I saw a guy come out of a store and hand a hot sandwich to a homeless guy asking for money. Food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters are always in need of money and volunteers. Some of course, are badly run, serve lousy food, etc., but there are also ways to get involved with changing that. Compassion can be complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

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