One of the hallmarks of a well lived life is Compassion.
A lot of people have very odd ideas about what compassion really is. People seem to feel that compassion means to forgive, to overlook problems, to treat people with kid gloves, to give in and give way and give up any sense of self in the service of other people’s needs. I could not disagree with that idea more. Compassion means to see and treat all living beings as if they really were your equal.
When people understand compassion poorly, their actions cannot be in line with what is right.
If you think compassion means that you must martyr yourself for others, you’re doing it wrong. When you martyr yourself, you’re attempting to put yourself at once above and beneath other people: it’s an obvious overt lowering of the physical self to elevate and aggrandize your own self image. To be a martyr to other people’s needs is an unequal relationship. You or they must always be shifting in relation to one another, one above, one beneath, one owing a debt and one collecting. Martyrdom is not a compassionate act.
If you think compassion means to mindlessly give other people what they ask for, you’re also doing it wrong. When a person asks for what they need, it’s fine to give them exactly that thing. Sometimes, however, there is another way to act compassionately towards them that does not involve enabling them. If a drug addict asks your for a clean needle, you can choose to give them a clean needle so they don’t use a dirty one. Or you can choose to help them get into a treatment facility, or go to job training, or offer them a good meal, or any combination of those things. You can meet the underlying need, or the spoken need, but either way you choose to act, don’t do it ~mindlessly~.
In Buddhism, there’s an idea called “Idiot Compassion”.
Idiot Compassion is mindless, it’s thoughtless, it’s the sort of compassion that you see people engaging in because it’s a quick and easy way to get an ego boost. You’re compassionate on an unequal level because it feeds your ego and your self image, instead of compassionate on an equal level because that equality is damn hard. Imagine going to a soup kitchen to cook, and feed people, and treating those people like long lost friends and comrades of yours, your peers, your equals. You smile and greet them all, and you honestly ask about their day. You sit with them to eat, and you pass the bread. Now imagine needing to go to the soup kitchen because you’re hungry and you have no food. Do you imagine that people who are martyrs for you make better soup? Or people who love and care for you as an equal, could they perhaps make better soup?
Shamanism and compassion have been close friends for a very long time.
Remember that I was raised Christian, in a version of the Protestant Church that prizes martyrdom highly. I was raised with idiot compassion as the highest ideal, so finding out that all along I’d been feeding my own ego and sense of self, fostering division between myself and other people… well, it stung quite a bit. I read of the Bodhisattva Path and thought that was cool, and immediately tried to be a martyr. And then I read about idiot compassion and realized the truth of the situation. Now imagine the Shaman in me waking up and laughing at myself. Of course you can’t be a martyr: you can’t pour from an empty cup. When you martyr yourself you’re unequal, and compassion is about interacting as equals. A shaman is neither above nor below the community they live within: separate from and yet enmeshed within, the spider at the center of the web, feeding and being fed, from an interconnected interdependent web of life.
Compassion honors the interdependent web of life.
Without compassion for the web of all living beings, you cannot work to alleviate the suffering of all. Without compassion for yourself, you cannot embrace the world as your equal, and without compassion for others you cannot relate fully to them.
“It’s also important that we can lean into the discomfort that comes with straddling compassion and boundaries. We have to stay away from convincing ourselves that we hate someone or that they deserve to feel bad so that we can feel better…”
~Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection