A conundrum that has always intrigued me is the way in which things we do in our desire to help people, can sometimes cause more suffering than if we had done nothing at all. In The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, I related the “vole” story in which our family cat attempted to give a “gift” to my mother in the form of a dead animal. Too bad there was no gift receipt on that one…
Earlier today I read a commentary about what may turn out to be somewhat misguided charity on the part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicating several billion dollars to contraception in Africa, when women might actually prefer to have better pre- and postnatal care. Some failure in our attempts to treat others as we would like to be treated are certainly doomed to failure given the wide diversity of human perspective in the world. Perhaps it is more surprising to observe how well that guiding principle works much of the time when the giver of assistance actually takes the time to truly put themselves into the other person’s shoes.
Given how central the tenet of compassion is to the every day practice of Buddhism, it seems crucial that we truly engage in a thoughtful process to understand the potential unintended side-effects of what we intend to be compassionate actions. Providing what has been referred to as “idiot compassion” can be just as devastating as self-centeredness.
Those of you who are a part of the Facebook community, have seen me reference some difficult times I have been going through lately. A big part of that was a blow that my business took due to some staffing issues juxtaposed on the direction in which the health care industry is turning. What I have been facing has forced me to analyze how I operate on many levels. One thing I discovered is that my compassion had run amok in the singing lessons side of my business.
To give some context, most music schools and other centers that offer music training have highly structured semesters and rules surrounding eligibility for make up lessons. I could never reconcile what I perceived as rigidity with the fact that sometimes people get sick or go on vacation. I thought so much about what the customer might need that I rarely enforced the 24-hour notice policy, even when someone canceled because “my daughter has too much homework tonight.” When the current crisis hit, it became clear that my lack of leadership in this regard led to the lessons side of my business losing money – significantly.
The irony struck me full in the face. By implementing “idiot compassion” in terms of my operations I a) jeopardized the jobs of 8 people and myself; b) jeopardized my ability to be able to stay to serve the clients I love. One day, a parent of one of my younger students said that I should plan on her staying through high school. Thrilling, but a stab in the heart when I recognized that if I didn’t get this taken care of I might not be able to be there for her.
So my associate teacher and I sat down together to discuss this. She is also a Buddhist and daughter of parents who are now Zen masters. I thought, if we can’t figure this out who can? We crafted a system that (I think) provides a lot better structure, but has some flexibility built into it as well. So far people are responding positively as we roll it out for the fall season.
This story seemed important to tell for a couple of reasons. First, this has been a really awful time for me, but my Buddhist practice has been an incredible asset that has helped me learn a lot about myself and how to relate to the world. Second, it illuminates the idea that the way in which we implement our compassionate intentions has consequences. You don’t have to be doing something extraordinary like building houses with Habitat for Humanity or spending Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen to have an enormous impact on the world around you. And despite having compassionate intentions your impact could be positive or negative in the balance.
It all comes down to the most basic tenet: proceed mindfully.
I would like to share with you a humorous take on idiot compassion, with a side-order of ego clinging, from Julian Smith. Enjoy!