Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Idiot Compassion for Dummies

It has been some years since I first heard the term "idiot compassion" used by Zen Teacher Joan Halifax. Her example was that you don't help a friend commit suicide; that might seem like compassion, but it's idiot compassion. After much thought, I'd have to say, "That depends." What if someone you love were wasting away in a painful terminal illness, and too ill to hasten her own exit without help, and asked you to help?

I think idiot compassion interested me because I grew up in an alcoholic household, my father the alcoholic, my mother the explainer.
"He didn't mean it."
"He has a headache today."
The setup was that he chose me to be mean to, to delegate as the family scapegoat, as it is known in family systems theory. The scapegoat is the one cast as the only problem in the family: If it wasn't for Jeanne, this would be a happy family.  She ruins everything.

My mother's interpretation was that he was "strict" with me, which she said in a wondering way.  No, this was not true.  He was not at all strict with anyone, including himself, not setting clear rules and enforcing boundaries as a father should.  He lashed out at me and demeaned me whenever he noticed me.  My mother did this too; when she was ruminating on her simmering anger at him, she would insult me or kick at me.  Really.  That sweet Sunday school teacher. 

I think that however much he disappointed and angered her, she loved her role as "the martyr, always the virgin," as my father put it.  Her role was to be kind and protective of her Man. If he had treated her son that way, it would have been a different story, but I was just a girl.

If I complained to my mother about something brutal he said to me, she might say, "His back has been bothering him," her voice assuming a rounded, sacred tone.  She was speaking as a ministering angel.  She loved that role.  When I was sixteen, I did my best to commit suicide. 

Here's the thing:  it does not matter what motivates someone to harm others - the harm is done. We might need to help that person or lock them up.  But to excuse out-of-bounds behavior, to explain it away and let them do it again, that's idiot compassion.  You're not helping them, you're not helping the victim, whether that victim is your child or yourself. 

It's not uncommon for women to excuse away bad behavior, and not just with their partners.  I've watched with some disbelief how people accept and excuse rude behavior from a woman in my (former) social circle because, oh, she's worried about [fill in the blank].  My response to that is my favorite line from the movies:  I don't care what she's worried about - she's hurtful.  And I don't like to be hurt. 

In case you haven't seen "The Fugitive," Tommy Lee Jones is a federal marshal chasing an escaped murderer played by Harrison Ford.  In the confrontation above, Ford is trapped in a huge sewer pipe.  He turns and tells Jones he is innocent.  Jones' response is, I don't care!  Because it's not his job to judge innocence.  His job is to bring the guy in.  And all you men and women who are putting up with partners who are mean to you and your kids, that's not your job, either.  That's not what compassion does.


  1. wow. thank you for sharing. so simple , but so far from the truth of some many lives.

  2. A hard-hitting post. I am so sorry for the pain you encountered while growing up. It's good though, that you are bringing this issue to light. I agree very much with your take on 'idiot' compassion. Just like those who look the other way when the school bully does and says cruel things to others, it's the type of 'tolerance' that doesn't help, but only harms.

    True compassion is sometime difficult to cultivate (and, perhaps even more difficult, balancing it with true wisdom), but this- not the impostor of complacency- is what is required for healthy relationships.

    Thanks so much for your insight.

  3. Wonderfully written--vivid and true. Thank you for your care and thought.

    Yet please consider whether the term "idiot compassion" may not be unhelpful on several counts in the scenario you depict. First, when it comes to compassion, we are all often idiots: We want to help but we often feel unsure of how to go about it, and we wish for greater emotional intelligence. Second, when one protects a wrongdoer (in this case, your father) one usually acts not from compassion but from a probably deeply unconscious instinct for self-preservation: If you had not been available as the "family scapegoat," your mother might have been designated to play that role; she was protecting herself from her husband's rage by failing to protect--i.e., by sacrificing--you. (I also am a survivor of this syndrome.) And third, idiocy--understood as low intelligence--plays no role in your scenario. Your mother's actions reflect a rather high degree of intelligence: she knew how to deflect her husband's rage away from herself so that he would continue to envision her as "a martyr" and even "a virgin"--quite a stretch for a wife and mother!

    Idiots are stupid, and often thereby blameless. The compassion of an idiot may consist of expending love where it is neither needed nor helpful, as, for example, in the case of someone who feeds an excess of sugar- and fat-rich food to a child in the belief that such food is a treat and that more must be better as a token of love.

    But in your case--and mine--the issue is child abuse inflicted by one parent and tolerated by the other who could not summon the enormous strength demanded to change the situation. This, I think, is what forgiveness on our parts is all about, and the need for it is all around us.

    God bless you!