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Compassion and Idiot Compassion


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.