Compassion and Idiot Compassion
When is helping actually hurting?
August 25, 2013 - 10:00 am
About eight years ago, I had to take my 18 year old Siamese, Vashti, to the vet for what I knew was her last time. She had lymphoma, and I’d been taking care of her as she failed slowly, until finally I was feeding her baby food with an irrigation syringe. Still, she’d always seemed grateful; she purred, however faintly, when I petted her, and she woulld sleep for hours on her special sheepskin rug, which I kept in my lap. But one morning I looked at her, and I heard her say, as clearly as if she’d spoken in words, that she was ready. So we went to the vet, and I held her, and as the vet was putting the needle into her vein, she died peacefully, before the vet even gave the injection.
Afterward, there were people who scolded me for waiting so long; and there were people, New Age hipsters, who said that as a Buddhist I should not have taken her to the vet, shouldn’t have participated in killing another sentient being. And I wondered myself if I’d waited too long, out of selfishness — but Vashti wasn’t just my cat, she was like my familiar, and you could make a good case that she’d been the only really successful relationship with a female of any species I’d ever had.
In any case, I was no longer uncertain after she’d died, because I was sure that I’d done as Vashti had wanted.
So last week we talked about metta, “good will” or “lovingkindness”, one of the virtues exhibited by the Buddha that we try to learn to recognize in ourselves through metta practice. If you’ll remember, in metta practice, you try to invoke that feeling of metta in yourself, and then direct it toward yourself and toward others, even people toward whom you feel hatred and anger.
Metta has another virtue, karuna or “compassion”, with which it is paired. Metta is wishing good to others; karuna is understanding the suffering of others. Buddha, when he was Enlightened, could have chosen simply to reside in nirvana, but because of his feelings of metta and karuna chose to teach the Way of Liberation instead. The two things together are really the basis of Buddhist notions of morals: your good will to others goes along with your recognition that the other person is really, at heart, another person like yourself, and so you try to avoid causing suffering and try to help them also avoid suffering.
Compassion, though, has its own dark and selfish side, which Trungpa Rinpoche called “idiot compassion” (lifting a phrase from Gurdjieff.)
To understand idiot compassion, think about a family member who is an alcoholic. This family member hasn’t had a drink, and is completely broke, homeless; after you find them, curled up in a doorway, you pick them up and take them home, give them a shower and a cup of soup. They sip the soup with trembling hands, and then look at you and ask for a drink, because they need one, and need one badly.
Do you give them a drink? They’re suffering, right? That’s what they want to ease their suffering; and you, with compassion, can see how badly they want the drink, how bad they feel. They start to complain, to cry, to scream; they are in agony, they are seeing snakes, and finally you give in and give them the bottle, and in a few minutes they are calmer and more comfortable, and in a few more minutes, they’re drunk, and passed out on your couch.
This is idiot compassion: you know they’re suffering from the lack of a drink, so you give them one, knowing that it is just putting off the problem. But by giving them a drink, you ease their suffering for the moment, and more importantly you ease your own suffering, because you no longer have to bear their agony through your own compassion.
Now, back during the 2008 Presidential campaign, the McClatchy papers called me up for an interview because I was basically the only white Republican Buddhist they could find in all of America. They seemed a little astounded that I could both believe in compassion and, as a Republican, not think that “free” health care and income redistribution was the “right” thing to do. If I’d have known the phrase “idiot compassion” at the time, I could have explained it more clearly, but my feeling, then and now, is that government giveaway programs are not a very effective way of reducing suffering, and often are just a way of hiding the problems. They aren’t about real solutions, they are simply a way to feel like you’ve tried with good intentions to do something, and now you don’t see the suffering any more.
If you’re around Buddhist circles very much, especially Boulder Buddhists, or hipster Buddhists, or the people who tell you they’re spiritual but not religious and they really like a lot about Buddhism, you’ll hear a lot of the usual politically convenient talk about redistribution, and mercy, and how the Occupy people have good ideas, and how it’s never right to kill and how George Zimmerman couldn’t have been justified. Or you hear how Obama should do something about the horrible things happening in Libya or Syria or the Sudan or for the Palestinians — but not, of course, using the military, he should make the UN do something or have a conference or a peace process.
And I remember Vashti, and I remember that sometimes the thing that makes you feel better isn’t the thing that does the most to reduce suffering.