Saturday, December 12, 2009

Have a Little Compassion (or Not)

There was a conversation that developed on Facebook the other day on the nature of compassion. And this is pretty unusual, because generally our conversations revolve around the inadequacy of Facebook or kitty crack or fudge-shaped-like-bacon or where I can buy an abacus. But on this particular day we were feeling deep and contemplative. I think this thread was started by Alec, my new best friend whom I haven't met (a phenomenon courtesy of the age of social networking).

But it got me thinking about compassion. I think too often we confuse compassion with being nice, or at least having the willingness to share another's perspective—agree with them in their misery. But more and more I think compassion is having the willingness to remain true to our own perspective and communicate it with integrity and kindness. I still have trouble with the kindness part at times, depending on the situation. But I'm beginning to think that may be optional, depending on the situation. Because women, especially, have been so indoctrinated to be nice at all times that many of us have gotten so good at it that we've forgotten how to be authentic.

The reason I went into the nonprofit field was because I wanted my work to be imbued with meaning. At the end of the day, I wanted to know that whatever I was doing wasn't just contributing to lining the pockets of a handful of shareholders, but was making a positive difference, even a small one, in someone's life. But as we all know, a job in theory is different from a job in practice.

One of my first jobs was managing a consumer credit counseling agency. We helped people get out of debt. While I didn't work directly with clients I would counsel them occasionally because I needed to be licensed in order to supervise the counselors who worked for me. I realized very quickly I had little tolerance for this line of work. I would sit across from someone who was mired in debt and our conversation would go like this:

Me: Mr. Boob, your income is $2,000/month and your expenses are $3,800/month. I think you may need to cut back a bit to bring things into balance. Now, these car have 2, no 3 cars...

Mr. Boob: One's a Ski-doo.

Me: Well, I think, given your deficit, you may need to sell at least one.

Mr. Boob: Well, now, that Dodge Ram is my baby. I can't part with her.

Me: Speaking of babies, you have two kids, correct? But no health insurance?

Mr. Boob: My kids stay pretty healthy.

Me: Yes, well, how about canceling either the landline or the cell phones, or perhaps the cable?

Mr. Boob: No can do. Can't miss Monster Bucks.

Me: You know Mr. Boob, I'm looking over your expenses here but I'm not seeing your hospital bill for the lobotomy.

And so it was that I quickly moved away from the front lines of nonprofit work and into the back offices where I currently play with spreadsheets and accounting software. I used to see this as a shortcoming within myself, that I didn't have the tolerance to sit with the Mr. Boobs of the world and explain patiently to them why they needed to grow the fuck up and be accountable for themselves and their children. I felt I lacked compassion. But now I think that to sit and pat Mr. Boob's hand and commiserate with him over the hardship of having to sell his Dodge Ram is a waste of good energy that could be better spent elsewhere. Because our time and our emotion and our words have currency. And we need to choose how we use them. And the older I get, the more prudent I am about how I spend my currency.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate my point. We have a lot of people that come through our agency and stay for a short time—interns and temps and volunteers—and they share a handful of desks we have in a central area. And because we are a small agency with limited resources, we are at times challenged to find places to put people and so play a game of revolving desks. But for the most part people are patient with this—we're all working for a good cause. This is a story of one such woman, whom I'm going to call Margie. I'm going to assume she will never read my blog, because if she did, she would surely be offended by what I'm about to write. But that's okay, because I'm 100% certain that I've already offended her in some unknown way, and so have you, even if you live in another country and have never met her. Trust me on this one.

One day Margie came into Celeste's office and she was red hot mad, and this is what she was mad about. That morning when she walked into the cubicle she was using, there was no space heater. The day before, a space heater had been there. Pretty fucking unbelievable, isn't it? So she marched into Celeste's office (Celeste being in charge of HR, among other things) and carried on for about 20 minutes. She was convinced, you see, that another intern had stolen, yes stolen, the space heater from her temporary cubicle, and she knew who it was, and this other person didn't like her, and she really, really, really wanted Celeste to do something about this. Celeste refused.

Later that day, Margie's supervisor came into Celeste's office and explained that Margie had come to her and there was apparently an issue with a space heater? And Margie had talked to Celeste? And Margie's feelings were hurt, and she was sure Celeste didn't like her, etc, etc, and could Celeste, as the HR person, please apologize to her? And this was Celeste's response: This is not an HR issue. This is an office supply issue. I would be happy to order an additional space heater.

Celeste recognizes something that many people do not. She knows that there is enough true pain and heartache in the world that its not necessary for us to spin our own drama out of nothing. And that this was not something worth expending much of her own personal energy on; and finally, that sometimes the kindest approach is not to be nice, but merely to be honest and direct. I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Celeste is a very bright person.

I think I would like it if we could all be a little less nice and a little more honest. I'm not advocating meanness or spite or any such thing. In fact, I think the more honest we are, the more compassion we feel. At least I know that's true for myself. Because nothing breeds anger for me like having to pretend to be something I'm not. And if all I have to do is be authentic, then I'm not adding anything to my to-do list; I'm taking away from it. And this time of year, that's a welcome relief.

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  1. I like the closing sentiment immensely. I worked with a Margie for a few years and the air is a lot more breathable now she's gone.

  2. I like this version of me so much better than crazy cat lady! I did tell "Margie" when she first approached me that I would get another space heater - I was not totally indifferent.

    I do think that Buddhist concepts, subtle and rich and deep, have been dumbed down to the thinnest English-language version of the words used to represent them.

    Compassion isn't being nice or charitable, as you so wonderfully said KB - it's about staying and being in a state of mind that enables you AND others to be and stay true, and honoring that in every part of your life.

    And mind-fulness isn't just paying attention to the food in your mouth as you eat. It's about remembering who you truly are and nurturing that even in the seemingly mundane aspects of life.

    And detachment doesn't mean not caring - it means not being distracted by all the things that can catch us up, and being attentive to the true essence at the heart and root of everyone and everything.

    Wonderful post, KB.

  3. this reminds me of a book I dearly love called 'Simple Abundance' it is a book of gratitude and has something for each day.
    I love it.
    everything starts with gratitude...
    sounds like "Margie" is an ungrateful person.
    Entitlement issues make for selfish people.

    Those who give nothing, have nothing, are nothing.
    by there own hand.

  4. Brilliant post. And I couldn't agree more. the concept of emotional energy, and whom to expend it on, is very dear to my heart.


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