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does compassion have a down-side?

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: 


4 responses »

  1. Maybe your compassionate self would feel better if both people involved have some control in this situation. Right now it seems as if you don’t have much. It can be helpful to decide what you feel comfortable with and what you need to change. If you don’t want to employ him (‘Boss’) around the house, let him know that this is not a possibility. If you want to try to make his life better in some ways, but are uncomfortable with his turning up at your house at any old hour, you could make another arrangement, and let him know that this is what you would like to do. Possibly you have things that you accumulate all the time (like most of us) and that you don’t need, as do members of your meditation group. It could be food, clothing, or other items. Can you offer to meet him fairly regularly for coffee somewhere and to give him what you have gathered, if this is something he feels would meet some of his needs? If he sells some or all or it or swaps it, no matter. If he has a need to be heard and listened to, maybe this is something you could do on these occasions as well. If you wanted to, you could also gather him some information about how he might start to get off the street, and give it to him. This may or may not be something he wants to do. I often find when I’m approached by people on the street that you have to be clear with yourself and with them about what you will and will not do, from moment to moment! Then the conflict leaves the compassion alone to do what it does. It’s not always easy though. Best wishes in keeping compassion for both yourself and for the man who has connected with you.

    • Pernilla, I appreciate the generosity of your reply — all practical and do-able. Thank you. I saw him this morning, listened to him being hassled by the police (tent not gone by 7 am). I explained to him my discomfort with him coming to the door late at night and around the back at all times looking for bottles. “Sure boss, you know me, I respect your pricacy.” He then asked for money (I hate seeing a grown man beg). I gave him $5 and told him that next time we could go to the corner grocery store together. Being a street person, he’s of course unable to store perishables, ending up buying unhealthy fast-food. I’ve also begun to put clothing aside, for him to chose from. Will have to be consistent in future meetings — watch comfort zones, his and my dignity and privacy. A cafe visit (outdoor) is a good idea. He’s being a teacher to me. So are you. Deep bow. peter

      • I once met a man like this man you describe. He latched onto me in much the same way. One night he arrived drunk and raving at my flat. I was then a single woman living alone and I couldn’t cope with him. I got a friend to come over and together we managed to get him to his digs and into bed.

        The next day I talked to a friend who worked with the homeless. He told me that there were many resources in my city for a homeless person who wanted to find care, shelter, food and work; it would appear that this man had decided not to make use of any of them. He also told me that although I might have all the compassion in the world for this man, I was totally unequipped either by training, by physical strength or by my situation in life to give him the kind of help he needed. If i encouraged him to come around to me for handouts, he would simply keep coming around–he knew I would give them because I couldn’t bear my own bad feelings of not giving them.

        You may wish to apply this approach to your own situation. If you suggest this man go to a shelter, what does he say? Did he actually go to the grocery store with you?

        Don’t forget that compassion must always be linked with wisdom, to know what is the right thing to do in the circumstances.


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