Understanding Compassion

Understanding Compassion



A woman came in the other day extremely distraught and exhausted. For the past five  months, she had been having trouble sleeping. She was fighting with her husband because she was working so much. And she had stopped exercising and eating well too.

There is a very effective treatment for insomnia and low energy, but needles and herbs alone would not resolve the root of the problem. I needed more information.

The woman confessed that she was having a lot of difficulties at work. She owns a small business with several employees and one of her original and well-liked employees had begun regularly missing work over the past nine months due to health problems. She gave the employee a lot of leeway and support to get better and manage her health, yet the individual still did not seem to be managing her recovery well. She was not improving and had begun to take advantage of the situation and everyone's support.

Originally, the other employees were happy to help pick up the extra slack, although each person's workload was already difficult to manage, but, as time passed, the discontent grew progressively palpable. As a result, the office was not functioning at its best.

My patient was torn because she strives to be a compassionate person and didn't feel right firing a sick employee, who had previously been an outstanding worker. But her hope that things would return to normal was dwindling; everyone else's had disappeared months before. For the situation to improve, we needed to work out her understanding of compassion.

While many traditions emphasize the importance of compassion and opening one's heart in order to evolve as a human being, a crucial part of that evolution is often overlooked: Wisdom must evolve simultaneously with compassion for harmony to ensue. Compassion without wisdom is idiotic compassion.

Let's imagine a scenario where ten people are on a boat in the middle of the sea and one falls overboard. What makes more sense: to throw the overboard person a floatation device and help them back aboard or for everyone to jump in the water to try to save the person at once while the boat floats away?

With compassionate wisdom, one can maintain a larger perspective. It's not productive to get overly fixated on identifying with another person's problems at the expense of oneself. Compassionate wisdom offers help, but it is also recognizes the freedom of another to choose to help him or herself—or not. Some may actually want to drown.

Wisdom allows others to freely live their lives and make their own choices, like whether to grasp the rope and get back on the boat. Compassionate wisdom is not sacrificial or martyr love. How can one have compassion for another, when one loses compassion for oneself?

Once my patient grasped the distinction, she felt at peace—after ample warning—to move on from the employee and find a replacement.