Compassion Is a Pain in the Ass – or – Stop Making Sense, Part Duh

Compassion has recently been a recurring theme for me. I noticed this after I published a blog post titled Stop Making Sense on the ridiculously stupid decisions that pass for logic sometimes, especially in a bureaucracy. In that post, I told two (true) stories that made me shake my head for years. I had started the post some time ago, but I couldn’t finish it for a long time. Why? Because I couldn’t get past it being a rant. I was left with a big “So What?” by my own post.

I hate it when that happens.

Scene Change

I discovered Pema Chodron several years ago (thanks to Bill Moyers’ PBS series “On Faith and Reason”), and one of the things that appealed to me about her, and about Buddhism in general, was her focus on compassion, or “loving kindness.” Especially toward ourselves. But it wasn’t until recently when I went through a process of coming to terms with a vocal condition that makes it difficult for me to speak, admitting how I truly hated my voice and choosing instead to be compassionate with myself and my voice, that the concept of compassion went from being a “Yeah, that’s nice,” abstract concept to something real.

In other words, it wasn’t until I stopped kicking myself in the shins every time a word wouldn’t come out or I struggled to make myself understood, that it started to get easier to not want to kick other people in the shins.

Case in Point:

That blog post. I couldn’t finish it for the longest time because I still wanted to shake the silly bureaucrats who make decisions like the ones I described. And I didn’t know how to get past that – until it occurred to me that they were (possibly) trying to do a good job – but maybe they were hampered by a variety of unexamined beliefs that led them to their conclusions. (I confess I am still tempted to say, “a variety of mistaken beliefs that led them to their ridiculously stupid and counter-productive conclusions.” I still have work to do.)

Which reminded me of an essay I read a while back, written by Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico. In her essay, “The Best Advice I Ever Got,” she wrote about how she learned from her father to “assume positive intent.”

That’s when I was able to finish the blog post.

And I was actually pretty proud of that post. I thought it was well written, it had a catchy title, and it wasn’t a rant. It offered something practical about getting past being stuck when dealing with those ridiculously stupid and counter-productive conclusions.

But it got no comments. None. Zero. A big goose-egg. “Waah!” I thought, “I stink as a blogger!” But my posts on “What Spiders Teach Us About Building a Great Team” and “Bobby Fischer Teaches Systems Thinking” got comments. So what happened?

Maybe compassion just isn’t catchy. Maybe I didn’t make it catchy. Maybe I should have admitted how HARD it was for me to get to that point – a little confession might have been catchier. Humility can be very funny, sometimes.

So, I’ll put on a big red clown nose and admit that being a change agent is HARD. (Actually, just being a decent person is hard.) And it’s hard because in order to be any kind of effective, I have to be compassionate, not superior. (That’s one difference between being a Consultant and being an “Insultant.”) I have to be aware of my own stuff and be able to meet people where they are, not where I think they are.

There is a big difference between compassion and pity, between being compassionate with myself and indulging in self-pity, and between having compassion for others and being patronizing. Compassion does not allow us to collude with bureaucracy and mistaken beliefs, nor does it allow us to judge those with whom we disagree. Compassion is a pain in the ass, actually, because it strips away our ability to simply react and take the easy way.

But compassion is also what makes it possible for us to consciously use ourselves, and it gives us room to learn from the differences between us, to ask for the sound and current data that is needed to replace unfounded beliefs, and to play infinite win/win games instead of win/lose power games.

In other words, compassion is one of the things that makes curiosity possible.

Now that makes sense.

What do you think? Please leave a comment.

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8 Responses to Compassion Is a Pain in the Ass – or – Stop Making Sense, Part Duh

  1. Beth Waitkus November 11, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    Compassion’s tough, no doubt about it…but life is so much fuller when we can find it for ourselves and others. Compassion and gratitude come from places of abundance and restoration, not scarcity and retribution. For me, shifting to compassion (especially for myself) means letting go of a lot of old stuff…so I can learn to accept the way I am, and to love others just as they are…Pema is a great teacher too — she was my first attractor to Buddhism. (side note: hope you are well, Susan…and you have an absolutely lovely voice which I appreciate very much!)

  2. Susan November 12, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    Hi Beth! Yes, compassion can definitely require letting go of old stuff – that has definitely been the case for me. And that can require some courage. And yet, is is such a relief, too!

    Thanks for your lovely comment! I am well, and I hope all is well with you, too!

  3. Jenny November 14, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    I spent years being furious w/ various governments and their accompanying institutions all in the name of “compassion.” Of course, I was compassionate and they were all flaming assholes.

    What a tough lesson it is when we realize our anger towards others is always, invariably, pointed inward and that compassion has to begin with ourselves. Ugh. 🙂

    I’m also reminded of a story (I think from Buddhism) which uses an arrow as a metaphor for unkind words, thoughts or actions. When someone shoots that arrow at us it lands right by our feet on the ground. We have to pick it up and stick ourselves with it in order for it to have any effect. I discovered I really liked sticking myself with arrows. Like…I was addicted to it. It made me feel special, more righteous, better than those throwing arrows. Boy did I feel foolish when I realized who was really to blame.

    Thanks for this. Great piece!

    PS: Yours is one of the voices I look forward to hearing every week. I have to back Beth up on her sentiment <3

  4. Susan November 16, 2010 at 11:04 am #

    Thanks Jenny! I really like that metaphor about choosing to pick up the arrows and stick ourselves with them. It’s even worse when we shoot the arrows at ourselves! Or maybe those are just old arrows that others shot years and years ago and we’ve just held onto them for a reeeeaaaally long time. Hmm..

    Thank you to you and to Beth for sharing your awesome self-awareness! And for your kind words. 🙂

  5. Mary Orton December 3, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    Susan: I love this post! Funny how I just happened upon another one about compassion . . .

    I think lots of folks get confused between pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion. The definition of compassion in Dzogchen Buddhism is the aspiration that one be free from suffering (self or others or both).

    And here is a metaphor my teacher gave me about the difference between compassion and other words:

    If others’ suffering is a hot pot on the stove –
    * When we have empathy, we grab the pot with no gloves and we suffer ourselves – we are feeling others’ pain.
    * When we have sympathy, we grab the pot with thin gloves and experience some pain.
    * When we have compassion, we are wearing heavy glove that protect us from pain. We don’t feel the pain, but we do have the desire and aspiration to reduce others’ suffering.

    I hope you are well.

  6. Susan December 3, 2010 at 5:16 pm #

    Mary, yay! Good to see you here! That is an excellent way of looking at the different words, thank you. And I suppose that using the heavy potholder-glove to take our own pot off of the stove is like setting the arrows down.


  7. Amanda Cavaz December 24, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    Compassion is one of those things that seems so obvious to me, like telling the truth or choosing the vegetable side instead of the fries… yet it can be so difficult in the moment! I am becoming more aware of the difference between judgment with compassion and judgment from a place of superiority. You really bring this home for me when you say, “compassion makes it possible for us to consciously use ourselves”. Compassion is more powerful than it gets credit for.

    You are a rock star blogger, by the way. And the quirks of your voice make you more interesting to listen to. You don’t waste words. Perhaps your condition has led you to be the articulate person you are now?

  8. Susan December 26, 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    Amanda, thanks so much for taking the time to comment, and for your lovely words!

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