Compassion is overrated. Well, at least, regularly misunderstood in its application. Like so many concepts and principles, drawn from mindfulness practice, it seems to have been adopted, swallowed whole by our Western culture -- without much consideration for the 'downsides' of its undifferentiated and indiscriminate employment. Again, in keeping with our Western values, 'if a little bit is good, bloody great dollops must be better'.
Reflecting on pivotal periods, critical choices points in my life, the candidates could be narrowed to a few select 'suspects' joined by a common thread. With an initially disturbing awareness, these are all times when, in the parlance, I 'didn't give a rat's ass'* -- generally for the feelings of or impact on others. More of that in a moment.
Having spent (or mis-spent, depending on one's perspective) a year of my early adult life living, more or less hand to mouth, in various parts of western Europe, I returned a changed person -- leaner and meaner, as the saying goes. A previously chunky young man (witness my mother's stubborn insistence on shopping for 'hefty boy' sizes at the local department store in still earlier times), I'd slimmed down physically over that year. And shed as well was, not so much my morality (although it can become quite the encumbrance!) as my fearful observance of 'being a nice guy'. Sadly, I believe it's this latter interpretation of compassion that gets us into trouble -- lest we upset, incur ire, or ripple the waters unduly.
I had this realization confirmed a decade later when, having dabbled in running for a number of years with less progress than I would have hoped, I'd engaged a coach. Two bits of his wealth of advice stuck: choose a distance and concentrate on it; and secondly, be a bit more ruthless. He'd sussed out my 'nice guy' posture yet again and concluded that sticking with and supporting my buddies was not a way to engage what is essentially a competitive sport. 'Pack runs' are the time for that sort of thing, not race day. Hmm?
Some years after this 'second rebirth' and now into a third 'iteration of awareness', I had clearly backslid to a significant extent and was in need of yet another 2 x 4 to the forehead. Guilt, self-doubt, and hand-wringing confusion, coincident with a very fresh divorce, had prompted my engagement in an intensive group workshop built around seven days of personal introspection and encounter (think Bob & Carol & Ted &Alice), my first of this ilk. The facilitator had drawn me back to 'life changing' points -- less concerned with the 'when' as the 'what'. And as I catalogued some of these moments, he summed up the commonalities succinctly: "Sound like 'rat's ass' moments to me" -- . With his background in Gestalt and Human Potential, he was able to expand a bit. To his mind, these were all times when I'd allowed not so much a less caring (or compassionate) side of self to have a voice; as a more authentic, truthful, and certainly less deferential expression of self.
Compassion is indeed a very tricky concept. Too often it has become associated with being 'a nice guy' (or gal). Doing our level best to divine a 'right answer' (read, what we expect someone else might want, what might raise our good guy stock a notch or two, or keep a potentially volatile or confrontational situation from escalating). A review of Karen Armstrong's parameters in her efforts to construct a Charter of Compassion will quickly identify the foundations on which it is built: empathy, recognition, mindfulness, respectful dialogue, among others. Nowhere could I find a chapter entitled 'cultivation of a bleeding heart' or 'being nice'. In fact, she contends that the oldest and most basic component of compassion is a variant on the 'Golden Rule': do unto others -- as you would have them do unto you.
It's this last bit that perhaps bears repeating. Compassion is a very reciprocal thing. It is not a matter of self-denial, self-sacrifice alone; not simply 'doing for others. An essential meditation in a developed mindfulness practice is the lovingkindness or metta meditation. The core practice is that of blessing individuals occupying increasingly remote orbits of relationship, finally reaching the ring occupied by one's enemies. But it starts with the blessing, the wishing well of oneself. To deny one's own wellbeing is to skip the point of origin of compassion. What the facilitator had focused my attention on was not that when I behaved selfishly or callously, I did better or was more content. Quite the contrary. He was drawing my attention to the need for a more balanced voice, a voice that expressed my truth -- not at the expense of others but in tandem with the needs, views, beliefs of others.
So 'no more Mr. Nice Guy' is not an invitation to abuse or ignore; it's simply a reminder that equanimity must inform compassionate acts -- just as it should inform all behavior. 'Not giving a rat's ass' is not permission to dismiss or worse, diss; just a mnemonic for a balanced life. Hard to pass on a final pun, an 'ass of another kind'. One of my favorite explorations of this concept is contained in Forster's Howard's End (with apologies) wherein the bleeding heart really does get her comeuppance 'in the end'. To be sure, so does the 'harda__'.
* For those in the reading audience who, for reasons of sensibility or sheltered childhoods, may be unfamiliar, the expression refers to generally 'dismissing the importance of . . .' In contemporary lingo, it's the equivalent of a response of 'whatever'.