Saturday, June 25, 2011

On the Subject of Compassion

This past Thursday, I heard a lecture given by writer and religious historian Karen Armstrong. It was the first in a series of lectures in honor of Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was also present at the event. I am teaching my religion class right now, and I was hoping that I'd learn something from Karen that I could bring back to my students, especially when we got to the discussion of interfaith dialogue.

I realize that Karen was speaking for a more general audience, but I felt the lecture was a bit too generic. A lot of it was the same discussion of learning mutual respect and having compassion. She mentioned that as part of a TED prize she had won, she was going from city to city and country to country, trying to get them to buy in to a contract of compassion. She said she tended to be cynical about such things, but was really surprised and hopeful at the response.

I say good for Karen for initiating positive steps towards mutual respect among humans. However, I am not sure I agree with her vision of compassion. Karen has a new book out, a sort of 12-step program to becoming compassionate. She went over 3 of the steps in the lecture. She started off rightly enough in my opinion, by stating that compassion is not equal to pity. There is a tendency to believe that these terms are synonymous, and they are not. Compassion accepts and respects other humans as they are; pity "feels sorry for them" because they are not as wonderful as you are. Compassion does not judge.

It was her description of judgment that struck a discordant note with me. She suggests that we make statements and judgments about others in order to feel superior ourselves. In some cases, that might be true. Insecure people tend to take the world personally, and the actions of others are clearly an offense in their mind because of the other person's obvious character flaw. But Karen misses the point of the everyday judgments that people make. When people act in ways that are disturbing or inconsiderate, we often seek to find a reason for it. We don't actually want to believe the other person is just a jerk. We look at other patterns in their behavior relative to others and say, "Suzie forgets to call because she obviously can't control all the stuff she has going on in her life" (for example). If we feel positively towards people, we tend to make excuses for them. If we feel negatively towards them, we may be less forgiving. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. In the end, all of us do things that are annoying to others. I agree with her that you should detach from a tendency to demonize others because of that.

In addition, her ideas about compassion don't address personal boundaries. Perhaps she addresses this in her book, but she didn't in the lecture. Standing at the pulpit chastising people for "turning a blind eye to those who are really crying out" just perpetuates an already vicious circle. For instance--Person A may cry to me about their personal problems. Now, as humans, our first instinct would be to want to help. Person A may be describing real problems, but Person A may also be what you could call a "perpetual victim". They constantly get themselves into bad situations and use high drama to manipulate others into cleaning up for them. Now, maybe you've helped Person A, and you've gotten screwed--you gave an inch, they took a mile. The bottom line is that you don't help Person A by giving them money or other resources. You help Person A by saying, "oh well, best of luck" and letting them figure it out on their own. Person A may possibly need therapy, but that really should not be your concern.

The vicious circle comes in, because when we refuse to help, we feel guilty. To others, we may look cold and heartless. This doesn't only happen with people with fiscal or emotional problems--it may also be someone trying to wedge their way into your private life, when you're really not comfortable having them there. If you tell them to get lost, you look like a mean and heartless person. But you have a right to set boundaries--and you have a right to expect others to respect them. AND--you have a right to expect that others will be accountable for themselves. If someone is disabled, or otherwise unable to do some particular thing, that is a different story. But the examples I can think of involve perfectly healthy and capable individuals.

Perhaps it was because Karen was giving a general lecture to the group that she didn't get into these nuances. But I don't like the generalization that compassion always involves breaking down personal barriers. You may want to be friendly to everyone in a crime-ridden neighborhood, but it doesn't hurt to have your martial arts skills sharpened just in case. There is a very human need for self-preservation.

An article appeared shortly before Karen's lecture on "unconditional love without caring". The phrasing is odd, but the gist of the article is that one should not be attached to outcomes. We let other people become what they need to be, even if that means letting them drop into utter failure. Trying to control outcomes is bad enough in our own lives--it's certainly not appreciated by others if we do it to them, no matter how well intentioned. Sometimes compassion involves reminding someone that they have enough brains to figure something out on their own.

On the whole, I think Karen's message is important, and compassion is something too often missing these days, especially in extreme versions of religion. But in order to be compassionate, we have to understand the limitations and boundaries of ourselves and others. Otherwise, the move towards compassion is an empty one--it is what we're "supposed" to do, but it ends up being done with resentment. The only way to really care is to not care so much. If you are a religious person, you might better understand this as "letting God do the caring about outcomes".

No comments: