Friday, May 13, 2011

Cool compassion

We hear a lot about ‘compassion fatigue’ these days, as if being compassionate wears us out. But is it really compassion that’s exhausting us? Like other aspects of love –loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity – I suspect that true compassion is not tiring, but rather energizing. The actions we undertake out of compassion may require effort, but especially compassionate people seem to have more than average amounts of energy to expend. It seems as though real compassion generates energy rather than depleting it.

In Buddhism, compassion is sometimes said to be a ‘cool’ emotion. It has a soothing, calming quality, rather than a passionate, excited one. This makes sense to me. When you are responding passionately to the suffering of others, chances are you are swept up in your own related, but unacknowledged suffering. It’s not until your own emotional storm has passed (or you reach a calm point at the eye of that ongoing storm) that you really become available to respond to the suffering of someone else.

Cool or not cool?
Recently I spent a few hours with a friend I haven’t seen much of in a long time. He poured out the story of unhappiness that has been his marriage for the last few years. As he was telling me about it, I initially responded with calm analysis of the dynamic he was describing. I was trying to help him see the situation differently, in a way that might be kinder both to himself and to his wife. Although this might have seemed like a compassionate response, I think now that the ‘coolness’ of this approach wasn’t that of compassion. Rather, I was ‘performing’ compassion, doing what I thought compassion required, but quite likely irritating my friend with advice he wasn’t asking for. My desire to analyse his situation was more to do with keeping myself at a safe distance from his suffering (and my own), rather than getting close enough to help do something about it. That was pretty cold and self-protective of me, but it wasn’t very cool.

Then our conversation warmed up. My friend described an incident in which his wife had let him down, and it seemed to me that he did so in terms that were exaggerated and aggressive towards her. I responded by defending her behavior: “It’s not that bad.” He looked incredulous. Obviously from his perspective, what she had done (or not done) had been extremely hurtful, so I was flatly invalidating his feelings. At this point, I think it’s fair to say, I had dropped the role of the supposedly compassionate friend and had shifted to a more passionate, and honest, identification with my friend’s wife.

After my friend left, this small part of our conversation kept coming back into my mind. Later I tried to do some loving-kindness meditation for him, but realized that I wanted to send my love to his wife instead. When I allowed myself to concentrate on her, I burst into tears. I’m pretty sure that this was not because I was exhausted by compassion, but rather because I was recalling or reliving my own distress in a situation that was similar to the way I imagined hers to be. It made me feel much happier and lighter to let myself feel this and have a good cry. Afterwards, I felt spontaneously more connected to the people around me.

The following morning while I was making breakfast, I suddenly had an idea about why my friend might have been so upset by his wife’s behavior. It was a thought that made me feel sympathetic toward both him and his wife. My guess may or may not have been accurate, but it showed that I had shifted from reacting to my friend’s feelings and judgments to wondering about what had caused them. I had a sense of my mind expanding, no longer tense or turbulent with my own distress, but rather relaxed, energized and open. This, I think, is the kind of ‘coolness’ that is associated with true compassion. If this right, I don’t think anyone could ever get tired of it, or tired because of it.


genrenaut said...

On the idea of 'compassion fatigue,' have you read Susan Sontag's 'Regarding the Pain of Others?' She's mainly talking about responses to photography and video of atrocities, but there's a lot of interesting material in there about closeness and distance, sympathy and complicity.

One quote which in some strange way reminded me of the story you tell here was, 'So far as we feel sympathy, we feel that we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering' - Sontag suggests that, instead, we reflect 'on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may - in ways we might prefer not to imagine - be linked to their suffering.' I think this can be as true of emotional suffering 'close to home' as of physical and emotional suffering 'far from home.'

The other thing Sontag says about 'compassion fatigue' is that "we (post)moderns" are 'schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity.' Certainly this is something I identify about myself that I constantly find myself negotiating in trying to practice the Brahma-viharas.

- Rowan

Juzzeau said...

Thanks Rowan - I haven't read the Sontag book, and it sounds very interesting. I think the kind of 'distancing' sympathy she critiques corresponds to my initial response of analysing my friend's situation, as if it had nothing to do with me, and my responses were not personal in any way. Her suggestion that we locate ourselves 'on the same map' of suffering seems somewhat different to my take on compassion here, though. Her approach seems to insist that we accept some blame, or at least responsibility for the suffering of the other - seeing ourselves as 'accomplices' to its causes, whereas my experience of compassion didn't make me feel culpable. Rather, I think it shifted me away from judgment, of everyone involved. In the end, I had lost the impulse to take sides, although I was getting more interested in investigating the causes of suffering - so looking at the 'map' in that sense.

Sontag's theory sounds very similar to the work of Iris Marion Young, who has a 'social connection' theory of responsibility that I used to find quite compelling. But this discussion is helping me to see the force of some of my students' critical reactions to the theory, which was that it seemed likely to make people feel guilty rather than motivate them to change their behaviour.

I wonder if part of the reason for postmodern cynicism might be that it's a protective reaction to feeling saddled with too much responsibility for the sufferings of the world?


Russell said...


Your thought-stirring blog brought to my mind a conversation I had recently with someone who'd just read a book about issues and conflicts in contemporary American psycho-therapy. Someone goes to the therapist they've been seeing for years and reports that their mother has just died. This therapist doesn't express any sympathy but asks something like 'what do you feel about that?' I thought what a bastard. But my friend suggested the cold response was maybe what the person needs to express thoughts that may be denied if the therapist had said 'o that's tragic and sad'.

Of course a friend is not a therapist, but it sounds like you were put in a some such position by someone unburdening themselves of their feelings. My sense from reading your account of the event is that you're being hard on yourself, and that you were bravely offering your own perspectives, risking hurt feelings for the possibility of increased awareness.

Peter said...

Really interesting thoughts here ... thank you ...

I suppose the fact that the word "passion" is part of the word "compassion" (which literally means "co-suffering" or "suffering with")leads us to associate it with feeling passionate about something.

Yet passion in the sense in which it is used in the word "compassion" is more about empathy and understanding, so your growing empathy for both your friend and his wife would seem to be exactly what compassion is really about.

What I suspect is the cause of "compassion fatigue" is concern for the suffering and injustice in the world over which we appear to be powerless, that we can do nothing to put right.

But maybe as you say, true compassion is mind-expanding, as we grow into a more complete understanding of the situations which confront us and of all the parties involved in them, not just those with whom we agree or identify.

Not sure if this makes any sense at all, or if I particularly embody it myself, but its what I aim at.