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Compassion Gone Wrong, A Lesson

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

“Nowhere is wisdom more necessary than in the guidance of charitable impulses. Meaning well is only half our duty; Thinking right is the other, and equally important, half.” Samuel Gridley Howe, 1868, at the dedication in Batavia, New York of an institution to serve people with disabilities.

Some years ago, I noticed a young woman crying and praying. I knew her boyfriend and I felt that I should at least show her that I cared about whatever was troubling her. Except I didn’t. Not really. Looking back, I think some part of me thought she was faking it. Not faking being in a tough situation but pretending her display of dismay. Yes, I was judging her.

Shrugging off my feelings, I decided to listen to her problem and help her. Now I was faking it. She needed rent money. My husband and I wrote a check. I was resentful. I showed my resentment by lecturing her.

There would be no more money I made clear to her; she needed to figure out her situation. Except she didn’t. In thirty days, another month’s rent was due. We paid it. More resentment. I heard later she was back on drugs and had been kicked out of her house. The whole episode seemed like a fiasco, and I felt horrible.

The situation, however, was a lesson for me in how not to do compassion. One obvious takeaway is don’t do something that goes against my insides ... certainly don't do it a lot or expect fulfillment from doing it. It's doubtful my actions are going to be highly satisfying to the recipient either if I am scowling or acting put upon. It did not occur to me that maybe I should turn on my heel from trying to force myself to take care of her and look at what was going on inside of me rather than just shrugging it off.

What would I have noticed inside myself? What thoughts – she’s not sincere (could I have caught my judgment right there?), what feelings – annoyance, anger? Knots in my stomach? Tension in my back?

And where would these emotions, thoughts, body sensations be coming from? What fear or anger (she’s taking advantage) perhaps kicked up from my past (“Don’t let others con you, June”) or my assumptions might be activated? I could try to get to the bottom of what was going with me – perhaps even doing some healing, before running to the rescue.

The second takeaway for me is that I don’t have to give money if that goes against my grain. There are other ways of tending to the suffering in another. I could have approached her with a warm heart. I could have caringly and deeply listened and connected with her suffering before doing anything else.

I might have found out (as I reflected on what she had said afterwards) that her real hurt was around an uncle whom she had trusted and who had snuck away, deserted her in the night. “But why,” she cried, “why did he leave me?” I didn’t even think about what she was saying, I was just running straight into fixing mode. Angry, annoyed, fixing mode.

For those of us who believe that following the way of compassion is the royal road to the good life for all concerned, we may realize that there are some skills and ways of being to learn and to practice which can be helpful for the journey. In this case, some amount of self-awareness, noticing when we should take a U-turn toward working with ourselves, and also having a process for deciding what to do especially in challenging situations.

Dr. Frank Rogers, in his book Compassion in Practice, outlines some general categories of compassionate action like generosity, service, witness, solidarity, empowerment, and justice. Some appeal to me more than others. Dr. Rogers encourages us to notice what sorts of actions most attract us and energize us. For example, for me personally, I much prefer empowerment sorts of approaches like helping others learn skills rather than giving money to people on a street corner (though I have done that occasionally).

My husband, on the other hand, loves to do acts of service. He's working all day today to help a friend. He has a smile on his face, energy in his step, and sleeps deeply after a long, rewarding day.

Dr. Rogers also gives us other ideas to consider before acting like:

  • Does this action promote and preserve the flourishing of my own humanity? Does it employ my unique strengths, skills, and resources? And (very importantly) can I do this action without activating other parts of myself (like anger and resentment for example)?

  • Does this action promote and preserve the flourishing of the other? Does it get at their deepest needs, is it life-giving, does it enhance their dignity? Does it invite any appropriate need for accountability?

Lastly, before acting, Dr. Rogers suggests that we imagine ourselves doing this act of compassion…as if we are watching a movie. We note in our imaginary movie what we are saying and doing and how our bodies feel. We notice the effect on the other in response to our compassionate act.

Then, after going through this process, we may have a clearer sense of what feels right, we can act.

Of course, there will be many times when we don’t need this process. We immediately sense what to do very naturally and it feels good.

But for those more difficult times when we are pushing ourselves toward delivering meals on wheels or giving money to charity or working at a food pantry or giving money to a person on the street corner (all charitable, moral, ethical actions, but something is kicking up in our insides ), we may need to remember to step back, take a U-turn toward ourselves and notice what’s going on in our interior. We may need to investigate what might be undergirding our difficulty before forging ahead.

After getting more centered, then listening and connecting to the other, we can examine together further options for giving, for doing, for brainstorming which feel right for us and for the person we hope to help. I have found using this process that many of the people that at first glance "must be rescued" by me have capabilities and ideas themselves which are far superior to mine.

How might we Journey together to The Good Life by not automatically giving, doing, or taking actions which we haven't thought through and don’t feel right to us?

If you are interested in Christian sermons on compassion, check out the seven compassion practice-based sermons written by Reverend Juli Reinholz in our sermons and stories under resources.

(as always, if you are a subscriber, and hit respond to this blog in your email, the comment will come directly to me)


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