How Compassion Effects Happiness

Does that sound strange? Listen to the following comments and see if you can figure out some hazards of being  "compassionate." What are these "compassionate" individuals doing to their own sense of justice and to their own sense of self-worth?

"He's so giving and compassionate. He's a saint. His mother was very abusive; she incessantly belittled and hit him, yet he treats her well. He'd give her the world. You would never have suspected the harm she has done him." Clue: What has this compassionate guy done to his own sense of justice?

"What a compassionate person she is. She gets a babysitter every weekend and she's  down here at the soup kitchen.  She'll do anything for those worse off then she is." Clue: Why do people have to be "worse off" than her to warrant her attention? What happened to her capacity for admiring those more successful than herself? What does this suggest about her own sense of self worth?

"He's a compassionate, forgiving man. A  neighbor raped his daughter but he holds no grudges. He continues to talk with this neighbor." Clue: What happened to his sense of justice?

"Many people feel compassion for Clinton. Yes, it's true that while married he had an affair with an intern and he lied under oath. But they can forgive him. They understand that no one's perfect." Clue: Is no one accountable for making bad choices? Are we all excusable? What is this suggesting about the people excusing Clinton?

"Compassion" is  defined by the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, as "pity inclining one to help or to be merciful." Some situations properly evoke compassion (e.g., a friend's losing his child to cancer, a  neighbor losing her home in a hurricane).  It is appropriate to help others under certain conditions (e.g., that the help is temporary, that they are in trouble through no fault of their  own, that it's not a sacrifice for you, that they are not your enemies and that they thank you appropriately). But why do some people bask in doling out unearned compassion and unearned pity. Why the need to focus on the pitiful or the need to let scoundrels off the moral hook in the name of "compassion"? There are several possible explanations.

1. Self-justification: Some people have skeletons in their own closets and they want to be let off the moral hook as they are letting these people off the hook. "No one's perfect" is their battle cry. For example, if you shoplifted in your youth, you might be more "compassionate" toward those who commit similar acts nowadays. It helps you pretend to yourself that you couldn't help shoplifting and thus, neither could they. You were both victims of circumstances.   If you lacked the courage to judge your own bad choices accurately, what would now give you the courage to judge others accurately?  When you let the abusive mother, the rapist or Clinton off the moral hook, there's a toll. The compassion you give to them penalizes their innocent victims. To show compassion toward your abusive parent is abusive toward yourself. To show compassion toward your daughter's rapist is a gross injustice to your daughter.

2. Inferiority: Some people embrace the self-image of being compassionate to cover their own feelings of inferiority.  For them, admiration, focusing on people more ambitious and productive, is painful, whereas surrounding themselves with and comparing themselves to those worse off buys them a false sense of feeling adequate, needed and even superior.  They have a vested interest in finding those less well off.  You may have a "compassionate" friend who is always there to console you during difficult times, but when you achieve success, e.g., you get a promotion, this same friend remains silent.  A fortune cookie message I once got speaks to this point "Some friends can accept anything in you -- except success."

3. Unearned guilt for healthy success: Some people feel the need to focus on those less admirable because they have been made to feel guilty for their healthy achievements. When you work hard, put forth effort, plan well for your own long-range goals and become successful, you may then falsely attribute your success to "luck" and feel that you must "share the luck" with those who refused to put the energy and effort into their lives. It's paying for your "sin" of earned success. What those others who don't put forth the effort need is not a compassionate share of your time and your wealth, rather they need to learn your method to guide their own lives well. Don't apologize for your rationally earned success. Enjoy it!

4. Fear of passing judgment: The desire to be a "nice person," to avoid saying anything offensive or negative to anyone, powers many of us. We've learned that it's better to be nice, rather than to be honest. Most of us have seen crude examples of tactless honesty such as a hotheaded, hostile person who bluntly  "tells you like it is." He's repulsive and we don't want to be like him. So we adopt a "nice" personality, i.e., we never express our negative thoughts. This is psychologically disastrous. If you try to be "nice" in your marriage and never tell your  spouse what bothers you, at a certain point, you will be unable to keep up the sweet veneer and you will explode with a tirade of negatives.  You can still be honest and "tell it like it is" by learning some tact and some communication skills (e.g., "I" language).  It's important to accurately pass judgement and speak your mind. It's self-respecting to do so.

Compassion, in the sense of being the nice person, subjugating your judgement to make others feel better, is the enemy of honesty. Compassion, in the sense of letting  others off the moral hook to justify your own misdeeds, is the enemy of responsibility and accountability. Compassion, in the sense of a selective focus on those who do not lead their lives well, is the enemy of justice. Compassion, in the sense of belittling your own earned success and paying penance for your achievements is the enemy of self-respect.  The alternative to compassion is not rudeness, hostility nor contempt. The alternative is to respect yourself and your own healthy judgement. Learn to speak your mind openly, assertively and  tactfully. The alternative is looking, not for flaws or tragedy in people, but for admirable healthy character traits and actions.
If compassion simply meant empathy, being able to "put yourself in the other person's shoes" and understand his difficulty from his context, then it might not be destructive. I can mentally "put myself in the shoes" of an abusive parent or of a shoplifter, yet still tactfully pass judgement on the bad choices they have made.

The notion that "none of us is perfect" warrants a few words. If  perfect means never making a mistake or a poor choice then "being perfect" is impossible. But for a human being, perfectis the best of what is possible to him. It does not require him to be omniscient. It requires that he use his mind in the healthiest manner possible, that when faced with healthy vs. unhealthy choices, he makes the healthiest choice given all the relevant facts at his disposal. The "no one's perfect" defense of bad choices dissolves in this context.

So what is the cure for compassion? Tactful honesty, self-respect,  justifiable admiration, responsibility, and the resulting earned self-respect. Choose to be honest and learn the communication skills that allow you to speak your own mind, tactfully. Experience  the pride of your own rationally earned success. Develop the capacity to admire those who have made rational achievements. Don't appease those who have not worked as hard as you have and who then  try to belittle your achievements.

I'll end with a paragraph from The Fountainhead: "Compassion is a wonderful thing. It's what one feels when one looks at a squashed caterpillar. An elevating experience. One can let oneself go and spread –you know, like taking a girdle off. You don't have to hold your stomach, your heart or your spirit up – when you feel compassion. All you have to do is look down. It's much easier. When you look up, you get a pain in the neck. Compassion is the greatest virtue. IT justifies suffering. There's got to be  suffering in the world, else how would we be virtuous and feel compassion? …Oh, it has an antithesis –but such a hard, demanding one…Admiration, Mrs. Jones, admiration. But that takes more than a girdle. So I say that anyone for whom we can't feel sorry is a vicious person."

Regain your self-respect. Get your spirits up. Compassion, in the sense of unearned  pity and unearned forgiveness, has no place in a rational person's thinking and it won't guide you in the direction of happiness.