Compassion as a misnomer — it is not about being someone’s saviour
Compassion is a word often used these days. We want the leaders, individuals, and the world in general to be more compassionate. If we were so, the world would be a better place. But given that there is so much usage of this world, it is likely that it has been used wrongly. It has been used loosely a lot like other buzz words such as depression or mental health etc. The times that we live in “I am depressed” is used for the smallest of reasons including “I did not get my pizza delivered on time”. But I digress. This post is about compassion.
Compassion towards those who have been marginalised is often confused with helping them — it is confused with feeling pity and charity for the people we serve. Oh he is so poor. Oh she faced domestic violence! Such a pity! We should give him money so that he can look after himself. And we should tell her what to do and give her advice so that she comes out of her pain. Just even writing these sentences makes my blood boil.
Compassion is not pity! It’s not being sympathetic who have less than you. When you start pitying someone who has less than you, you assume the role of helper who is there to get them out of their condition. You start assuming that “You” have what it takes to bring someone else out of misery. You become their God. What happens as a result of such thinking is that you continue to be the God or the saviour or the helper and those who have been depending on you continue to depend on you. You might even like it because it gives you a kick being someone else’s saviour. It is good for your ego. But what you fail to understand is that the person remains in their state. The dynamic continues. We this dynamic played out at every unit of the structures or the system that we live in. We see it in families where a man continues to mistreat a woman but gets her a bouquet or ring to make up for the bad behaviour. We see it in organisations where the leadership continues to have autocratic behaviour and compensates their employees with wellness coupons. We see it as societal level where the “so called rich” continue to give donation / charity (all in the name of philanthropy) to the poor. Nothing changes. The status quo remains. The helpers pitying the helped. The helpers remain the helpers, the helped remain the helped. One continues to feel good at the cost of the other.
Compassion, on the other hand, is a term rooted in freedom of all human beings. Freedom from suffering. Buddha was the most compassionate soul. Even after experiencing liberation from suffering, he never considered himself God but just another human being and he didn’t ask his disciples to blindly follow him but to come to the experience through their own contemplation and their own reflection.
Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.
Kalama Sutta, from the Pali text, sourced from here
Being compassionate means treating people equally. It means believing in their ability to find their answers and for them to be their own helpers. It means believing that they deserve whatever you do — whether it is peace, success, love. You remove yourself out of the equation. Because your “help” doesn’t matter. You becoming their “hero” is pointless. What matters is that you create a system so that they are able to provide for themselves and think for themselves without depending on “you” or your ego.
So what does compassion look like in action? Compassion in action looks like treating your partner as an equal — believing that she is able to take care of herself — emotionally / financially / mentally. Of course that doesn’t mean that you don’t take care of her if things go awry, but it’s about not trying to be her saviour or her helper. It translates to not giving advice to someone when they are confused because in that scenario “you” are sharing from “your” perspective. It’s about asking them questions so that they get clarity because you believe that they have the ability to find their own answers. It’s about not giving money to those who have less than you, but by creating opportunities for them so that they can earn for themselves — with dignity.