July 29, 2014
There are many words that the general public gets wrong. Ambivalence, for example. Most people think that “ambivalence” means “I don’t know what I’m feeling.” In fact, it means “feeling two separate emotions at the same time.” Often, this leads to not being able to separate the two, but that uncertainty is not an inherent part of the meaning of the word. Likewise, “empathy” is often described as the ability to feel what another person is feeling, an idea supported by science fiction (Star Trek is one major culprit here!). In fact, empathy is the ability to understand what another is feeling, and to some extent comprehend what the experience is like.
Compassion is another word that I think many people misunderstand. Some see it as a force, driving behaviour. “If you had any compassion you would…” But compassion is simply having concern for others, especially those having misfortunes. It’s an emotion. It does not direct our behaviour. No matter how strong that emotion is, it does not choose the behaviour.
I do not give money to panhandlers or people collecting money in front of stores. “Would you like to help feed the homeless?” they say, with their bucket for donations placed conveniently for my contribution. When I continue on my way, they say “God bless you,” and don’t realize that I can, in fact, hear the unspoken “asshole” that they repress. “Pardon me, do you have some money so I can ride the bus home?” says the man in the parking lot who was trying to get bus fare home this morning when I stopped at the same Starbucks. Or he has a story- “I ran out of gas, I’m just trying to get to Bakersfield, I forgot my ATM card at home.” And I do not give them money.
At some point, someone who knows me will ask “why don’t you give them money? You’re a Social Worker, I thought you’d have some compassion.” And it is at that point that I must explain that compassionate doesn’t mean stupid. The company that put that guy out in front of the store spends pennies on the dollar on the homeless. I’ll give my money- or my time- to the city mission to feed the homeless, or get a list and go shop for them. The guy in the parking lot has been trying to get to Bakersfield for three weeks, and is wearing long sleeves in the 100+ heat so I can’t see his track marks. And when I look at his arms and meet his eyes, he knows that I haven’t fallen for it.
I have compassion for him. Being an addict is hard. His life is a misery and he doesn’t know how to fix it. I want to help him. But I will not help him by giving him money to get his fix. I will only delay the inevitable. “Hey, bring your gas can over, I’ll throw ten bucks worth into it.” “Uh… I don’t have a gas can.” “Okay, I’ll buy you one.” “No, I don’t want to hassle you.” Sometimes, if they’re asking for money for food, one of them will take me up on an offer to buy them something. Yes, he’s still an addict- and he will use someone else’s money to buy his drugs- but he’s not using mine.
One of my patients has a voice that tells him horrible things about himself, things that make him, literally, cry during therapy sessions. He has no control over it, and he’s on Clozaril, which is our biggest, baddest gun. He’s never going to leave our facility, and I don’t know that he should. Because he’s so crazy that there is no way that if his voice tells him to do something dangerous for long enough that he won’t eventually do it. He’s going to die here. Underneath the crazy, though, he’s a really sweet guy, who doesn’t mean harm to anyone. He built a fire in the wrong place and didn’t consider that anyone might get hurt- fortunately, no one did- and for that he’s going to die here.
I don’t think that’s right. But unless someone is willing to take him under supervision out there in the community, I can’t tell the court that he should go. He really just is that crazy, and someone is going to get hurt if he’s not watched, because he doesn’t have the ability to make good decisions. That saddens me greatly, because no human being should be in such a situation. But- despite my compassion- I will not support letting him go until he can be supervised, because I also have compassion for his potential victims.
It is good to be concerned about the welfare of others, in my opinion. To allow that concern to dictate your decisions when you may not have all the facts isn’t compassion, however. As warriors, as Knights, we will often see people in bad situations of their own making. To decide to swoop in and rescue them won’t help them, will hurt us, and may leave us unable to help others who really need our help when they need us most.