Silly question, you say? Isn’t that what your life is all about? To suffer-with others in order to be their companion, helper, and guide? Doesn’t your heart delight in the phrases of the 8th Century Indian writer Shantideva, who spells out the aspirations of a compassionate being, a Bodhisattva:
May the virtue that I have acquired by doing all this relieve every suffering of sentient beings!
With showers of food and drink may I overcome the afflictions of hunger and thirst! May I become food and drink during times of famine.
May I be an inexhaustible treasury for the destitute! With various forms of assistance may I remain in their presence.
Yes, you say: that’s my intention. To be of service, that’s my vow. So why this weird subject line to today’s blog post? How can there be a down-side, a disadvantage, a problem with compassion. What’s going on?
Well, yes. But … someone’s giving me the creeps. While working in the garden a few weeks ago, a man stopped by with his bicycle. He told me a story, several stories in fact, of where he used to live, what he used to do, and so on. And now he lives ‘on the street,’ in a tent that he puts up each evening and must take down by 7 am (city bylaw). How he makes do with collecting bottles and cans, and welfare payments. He offered to wash the windows of my house (“used to do it for a living, up to 32 stories high”), gave me a decent quote, and asked for a down payment “so I can buy a new tire for my bike.” From there, one story led to another, about getting a ticket for riding without a helmet, needing to buy smokes (“my nicotine addition”), food (“the shelter doesn’t serve on weekends”), and so on.
After that I didn’t see him for a days on end. Weeks later, the windows are only partially washed, and not even very well at that. Last night at 10 pm there was a loud knock at the door and there he was, asking to trade some unlabeled bottles of wine (“I know you like wine, I’ve seen your bottles”) for cash to buy breakfast. His clothing was tattered, so I offered him a water-proof hiking jacket someone gave me and a pair of running shoes still in good shape. We agreed that he’d come back in the morning to finish washing the windows. He keeps calling me “boss.”
And now what? Now you’re afraid that he’s adopted you as his soft touch, a bleeding heart, an easy mark: someone who’ll believe any story and come through with handouts? Someone he can come to at any hour of the day and ask for help? What is your problem?
“Compassion is an unpopular word nowadays,” writes David Brandon. “It points towards commitment, involvement, caring, love and generosity of heart. These are directions closely related to feeling and sentiment, sources of considerable embarrassment for [a modern person]. It is less dangerous to be cool than passionate in contemporary society. However, compassion lies at the heart of all helping; without it relationships between people are like dry leaves in the wind.”
source: Brandon, D. (1990). Zen and the art of helping. Arkana, p. 47; image: www.bikeportland.com