Generosity or Idiot Compassion?

Via Jay Winston
on Jun 15, 2010
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“‘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.


About Jay Winston

Jay S. Winston, founder and proprietor of Yoga for Cynics (, has a PhD in English, making him the kind of doctor who, in case of life-threatening emergency, can explain Faulkner while you die, is currently (semi-)(un-)employed as a freelance writer and editor, teaches creative writing to homeless men, tutors recovering addicts in reading, was recently certified as a Kripalu yoga teacher, gets around mostly by bicycle, is trying to find an agent for his novel, resides in the bucolic Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, State of Mildly Inebriated Samadhi, U.S.A. and, like most people who bike and practice yoga, used to live in Boulder.


22 Responses to “Generosity or Idiot Compassion?”

  1. so right on! thanks for this . . .

  2. Carlos says:

    Thanks for the post and the reminder for caring and being careful.

    Also, it'd be great to have the feedback of some of you in relation to the expression "idiot compassion" and how it is used today. Although I think I can understand what Trungpa and Pema Chödrön mean, I can't avoid the impression of it being misused most of the time, as an easy justification for not accepting others, trying to understand them and caring for them, and instead defending one's own view about what is "right" and "wrong".

    I mean: if someone asks for help and you don't agree with this person, you don't make an effort to understand this person and maybe help, and semi-automatically labels this as "idiot compassion". Most of the time I witness someone using the expression "idiot compassion", I can't avoid this feeling, which makes me question how we use it today. Personally, most of the time I'd like to say: compassion is not idiot!

  3. Carol Horton says:

    Ouch. Yes, "idiot compassion" is a harsh phrase, but it grabbed my attention and made me think. Thanks for that.
    Admire your work. It's sobering to see how hard it is for people to change – even so many who don't have such horrific histories as your clients. I guess we all just need to do what we can and let go of the outcomes. Which is hard.

  4. Thanks for this, Jay. I so admire your involvement in the community and way you write about it.

    Bob Weisenberg

  5. The thing that makes it so complicated is that we confuse compassion and rescuing. Its compassionate to NOT give money to a drug addict. Giving money to an addict who is obviously really in a lot of pain and seriously in need of help. Rescuing might make you feel better (and the addict) for a moment, but (as you point out) hurts you both in the long run. Compassion is more than a feeling or a gift, its a life practice. We teach it at The Compassion Movement (

  6. Holly says:

    Thanks, Jay. Totally enjoyed this post, and it was interesting to read your thoughts on the subject. It immediately brought to mind a very short conversation I had years ago.

    In the late 80's I volunteered one Thanksgiving at DC's Community for Creative Non Violence and having a few days before offered a cup of coffee to a homeless person one cold day and being told that he "only took cash," I asked homeless advocate, Mitch Snyder, his thoughts about giving money when it may very likely go to drugs and alcohol. His response was basically, "Give it to them. They have vices, just like the rest of us. Don't you have vices?" I was a little surprised at his shoot-from-the-hip answer and was still wary about giving money…personally, I think food and clothing is the way to go. In his defense, though (kinda, very kinda), at that time there was a huge debate about homelessness in DC, and Snyder, who was constantly fighting the city for their rights, was known for taking drastic measures to keep the homeless in the spotlight. I can't help thinking that he was desperate and just wanted the homeless to get whatever they could…it was an uphill battle just to get them decent shelter to bring them in from the cold. I wonder what his thoughts on this on this would be today, though we'll never know.

  7. Really good post, Jay. Thank you for bringing up these issues. Love your bio on here, by the way!

  8. Yes, Ricardo. I already awarded Jay the prize for "Most Entertaining Bio", and he could have won the "Funniest Line in a Bio" with either of these gems:

    …making him the kind of doctor who, in case of life-threatening emergency, can explain Faulkner while you die.

    …like most people who bike and practice yoga, used to live in Boulder.

    Bob Weisenberg

  9. As long as you brought up the subject of compassion, I can't resist sharing this little story:

    Woke up this morning, a little sleepy. Logged in to YJ Community the way I always do. The first thing that hit my eye was:

    “Compassion ate Yogis”

    which sounded like a terrible tragedy until I realized that the system had incorrectly split up the word “Compassionate”. (Maybe I should drink a little coffee in morning before turning on my computer.)

    While showering and laughing to myself about Compassion gobbling up hapless yogis en masse, it occured to me that karmic yogis are “consumed by Compassion”.

    Now, can someone please explain to me how that’s any different logically than “Compassion ate Yogis”? Perhaps it makes sense after all.

    (See why I have to write Yoga blogs? This kind of stuff just accumulates in my head and I have to get it out.)

    (From Yoga Demystified)

  10. kevin says:

    Compassion is "personal. One should never be labeled an "idiot" for expressing it.

  11. Brooks Hall says:

    Yes, care… It is so helpful to define this. I like using the word “care” because it is an embodied word. I can care and hand someone a hot sandwich. Where compassion is a word that can (if we’re not careful) be sort of a self-serving word (dare I say, masterbatory?). I can “have compassion” without doing jack, but if I care, I have the emotional connection to move mountains between me and my goal.

  12. WR says:

    Several million years ago, when I was a student nurse, one of my instructors fell in the hall. She was formerly an army nurse who had been in combat duty in a MASH unit somewhere in the world. Fulfilling that duty left her a double amputee. The evening she fell the strapping on one of her prosthesis had some how come undone. I and several other students came running to her aid and she stopped us in our tracks with these words: “If you are running to encourage me to get up myself ~ that is compassion. If you are running to help me get up ~ that is pity and pity will cripple me.”

    It is not always easy to know which is which: pity or compassion. It is a battle not to cripple someone one while trying to help him/her.

  13. I agree with you. Personally, I really haven't seen the term used very much except by Pema Chodron, maybe because I'm not really part of the Buddhist community, but, clearly, anything with "idiot" in it is almost asking to be misused. Actually, that's why I only left the use of it to her and Trungpa in this article, letting readers decide for themselves how it relates to the rest of the piece (originally, I thought of titling the piece "Compassion for Idiots," but decided that might be a bit much, and changed it to "Compassion is Complicated." Waylon then changed it to "Idiot Compassion or Generosity," which seemed to me a reasonable compromise).

  14. I agree, though I don't think the purpose of the term is to call any person an "idiot," but to refer to certain actions which aren't well thought out. If I pour coffee on my cereal by accident, that's certainly not a very bright thing to do, but it doesn't make me an idiot.

  15. Janice Jennings says:

    This is the most perfect solution that I have found – and it's happening in good ol' Booulder, CO!! See the *Boulder Change* information below. Check it out. Spread the word!… ** Boulder Change – The Carriage House Community Table has an innovative program that will help you and other community members to help the homeless. Through our Boulder Change program, you can purchase $1 denominations of vouchers that can be redeemed at nearly 20 local vendors including: __King Soopers, the RTD Bus Station, some Conoco Gas Stations, Boulder Recreation Centers, the Mental Health Center and a number of restaurants. ____The vouchers may not be used for alcohol or tobacco products and no cash change is returned to the user. This is an effective way to support the homeless of our community without worrying whether the money will be used for self-destructive habits.__

  16. Scott Medina says:

    Thanks for mentioning Boulder Change, Janice. For those of you who feel moved to "give a fish", this is a good way to do it while knowing the money will not go for alcohol, drugs or even tobacco. You can purchase it directly from the web site. It's an even $1 for $1 voucher exchange. Please spread the word about this program! If you are interested in serving food directly to the homeless and those in need, you can also find out more info at the same website. There's many other meaningful ways to "teach how to fish" in our community, but both elements are important ways that we share our humanity and…gasp…compassion.

  17. Scott Medina says:

    Certainly the psychology of wanting to help others is fascinating & complex. There often is some level of "guilt" involved, as is suggested in Pema's paragraph. However, I wonder if this quote is taken out of a larger context of an essay or particular example? While I have great respect for Pema, such a generalized statement is way off-base in my experience. People's genuine impulse to help others who are in pain is not solely to assuage their inner guilt ~ come on. Many realized beings on this planet dedicate their lives to serving those "in need". So, this excerpt from Pema is either very incomplete, or only a small part of the truth, in my estimation.

  18. Scott,

    Pema's name up there below the quote is a hyperlink. Hit that and you'll get a larger context. Even in the short quote, though, I think it's clear that she's referring to *all* compassion. She's saying that *some* of what we commonly call compassion is self-serving and can actually be harmful to the person we're supposed to be helping–and I think she'd agree with the distinction I make between giving someone money to buy heroin and, ultimately, hurting rather than helping that person (idiot compassion) vs. trying to actually help people with their addictions and, thus, actually serving them (complex compassion).


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