You’ve certainly heard of compassion before. But what in the world is “idiot compassion” you may ask?
Years ago while I was living in Vancouver I was having tea with some friends. We were having a discussion on compassion; What is compassion? How do we begin to know or practice it? The elder in the group, a medical doctor and one who had much experience with such questions, spoke and said; “let me share with you a story about compassion. A teacher of mine, to whom many people come to for wisdom and guidance, told me a tale about compassion vs idiot compassion. It goes like this:”
An old woman welcomed her nephew to come live with her family. He came from a different country and wanted to start a new life in Canada. Days passed, and the young man got accustomed to his new surroundings and got a taste for life in Vancouver. The kind woman fed him, bought him clothes, taught him what he needed to know about the new culture he now was living in. The young man was confident he made the right choice to come to Canada.
A day came when his beloved aunt told him it was time to start contributing to the household. It was time that he went out and got a job, and find his footing in his new city. Every day at breakfast the woman would ask him how the search was going. And every day he would answer the same thing; “oh not bad. But there is nothing there for me. I am different. Employers favour other people that are more skilled than I am.” The woman listened and said nothing. She continued to give him a bed to rest on, and food to fill his belly. Weeks went by and still the young man did not find work. Truth is, he was not trying very hard. He was afraid, and felt unworthy. And he was a tad bit lazy too.
Then came a day when his world changed. After his breakfast the wise aunt asked him one last time: “do you have work today?” And he said “no”. She then asked him to pack his bag, and to only come back when he found work. He thought she was joking, for his aunt had only shown him kindness and patience. But one look in her eyes and he knew that she meant business. Nothing could change her resolve.
So with great sadness he went upstairs to his room, packed his bag with his few belongings, and sadly left the house.
He wandered for a while, dazed. He did not know what to do. He loved his aunt, and trusted in her wisdom. At first he felt sorry for himself. He expected kindness from his aunt, for that is what she always showed him. Then he felt ashamed. He knew he had not tried hard enough to find work, and had spent months relying on the generosity of another. He slept on the streets the first night, feeling terrible. He saw other homeless people, drug addicts, people with mental illnesses, and some that have simply been beaten down by life. There around him was an entire array of people he would have never associated with, nor even known, nor ever pay attention to. Now he was forced to pay attention for his own survival, for he was afraid for his safety and his life.
One day led into another, and he became very hungry. He tried to go back to his aunt’s home, but she had instructed everyone not to let him back in until she gave the go ahead. He would knock, and knock, but no one answered. One time, the kind aunt came to the door and said to her nephew: “Go find work, then come back. But do not show up here again until you have done what I have asked of you.”
He left more desperate than ever. He went back to his place in the market. He had found a safe place to sleep where he would not be bothered. Near by, there was a washroom he could use, with a sink and fresh water. He had learned which restaurants and markets would have the best food in the garbage, and he would feed himself with scraps. He did the best he could to survive. He wondered how in the world was he going to get out of this situation. He started to make friends with the people on the street. Little by little, they taught him the rules of the street, and his english improved to the point he became quite fluent.
One day, a woman saw him pick out of the garbage for some food. She was the wife of the owner of a small vegetable market. Her husband had become very ill so she was taking care of many duties that she normally would not do. She saw something in the young man’s eyes, a sense of pride and dignity. This touched her heart. Out of impulse, she came up to him and made a deal. Would he help her with the grunt work in exchange for meals? The young man accepted her offer with delight.
And there began the start of his new life. Little by little, the woman gave him more duties. Pounds came back onto his slim body, and he even went to get a haircut. With everything that he would do, the woman encouraged him by giving him more responsibility. Within a few weeks, she offered him a cot to sleep on at the back of the store. He had a bed, a table and a desk. He began to read, and gained his strength. But he was still too embarrassed with his lot in life to go see his aunt. Then one day, the shop became so busy that he was asked to help out with customers. The old woman could not keep up with the demands.
The young man was kind, helpful and deeply grateful to be helping out. People loved him, and came by to buy more vegetables and groceries. He would tell them stories of his home country, and how different and similar the people in this country are. And they would listen, and keep coming back daily.
The woman was relieved. She taught him many things, and how to run the business. Months went by. They flew by really. The young man felt honour within himself, and a sense of pride. He took care of those he had shared the streets with, taking a portion of his wage and feeding the hungry, and the sad, and the devastated. He had found a richness in himself that no other life experience could have taught him.
This is when he realized the wisdom and kindness of his beloved aunt. He understood that she closed the door of her house not out of anger, vengeance and impatience, but out of deep compassion. If she would have tolerated his behaviour she would have enabled him to live a mediocre and irresponsible live. It was true compassion that motivated her actions, and he knew then and there the depth of her love for him. His heart filled like a fountain and tears welled up in his eyes. He now understood that the willingness to act from true compassion empowered him beyond any other action. Without realizing it, he had found compassion within himself. And the world was a better place for it.
Idiot compassion would have never had the courage to get him out the door, and have the strength of spirit to keep the door shut until the lesson or life skill was learned.
On a beautiful fall day with the sun shining he gathered a basket of her aunts favourite fruits and vegetables and took the sea bus over to North Vancouver to where she lived. He stood proudly at the doorstep, his smile radiant with a gentle knowing and understanding, and rang the doorbell. In no time, his aunt stood at the door. With a smile made of wisdom and kindness she embraced him warmly and said; “Welcome Home”.
I hope this living story inspires you as much as it has inspired and taught me over the years.
(Originally Published March 6 2014)