Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Opening My Eyes to Compassion Blind Spots

I have a blind spot in my compassion for others.

I have a difficult time tolerating people who are helpless. I know, it's not terribly helpful of me, is it? Don't get me wrong, I can have all the sympathy in the world for the mentally ill, the homeless, the poor, children, animals ... all manner of "helpless" beings who illicit great compassion and empathy in me.

But when I encounter everyday folks with the regular abilities to hold down a job, to have relationships, to generally function in the world, and yet remain seemingly helpless in the face of one particular aspect of their lives — my compassion goes out the window. 

I'm not proud of this.

My compassion completely ceases when anyone claims helplessness and then proceeds to blame someone else. Drives me batshit crazy, actually. I know, I know. I told you it was a blind spot in my ability to feel compassion for my fellow man. A grave one, if I were to be completely honest.

I have friends who claim helplessness in relationships. They can't change. They love him. Or her. They believe the other person will change and so they chain themselves to someone who is physically or emotionally abusive, in the hopes that the other will change. They stay with cheaters. They do all manner of things that make the rest of their friends grit their teeth and say, "Why?"

It doesn't matter how much you talk them up — pep-talking, tough-talking — no amount of offers to help, suggestions for therapists, books to read, examples of other people who have left only to find greater happiness — nothing can abate these folks from their self-destructive lives. 

"But I love him."

"I don't know what to do."

"I'm stuck."

And no matter how many escape routes you map out for them, they won't set foot on one of them. They are helpless to their own desires, their own fears, to their own blindness to their incredible power.

That's just it.

We are all so incredibly powerful. Each one of us, unto ourselves. No one but no one else has the power to free you the way you can free yourself. Perhaps this is the source of my frustration? So many friends and family blame other people for their predicament, or blame the economy, or the geography, or their psychology or whatever reason you want to drum up —my point is it doesn't matter.

Your mind is the most powerful thing of all.

The rest of it is nothing.

The Buddha said, "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world." The way you feel, the way you think about your life and your situation, is made up primarily in your head. I'm not saying if you're starving or living in a dangerous environment that this wouldn't be a very real discomfort — of course it would be. But for the majority of my friends and family (and me), we are not living in a war zone. We have a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator and it is safe to go outside.

So much suffering is created in our own minds.

So much resistance to ending that suffering resides in our own minds.

I recently listened to a friend uncork on how another friend's parents had ruined her life. These controlling parents had taken their adult daughter away from the city she loved, the job she loved, the girlfriend she'd loved ... all of this through the power of their religious guilt.

My friend argued that I didn't understand the power of parents' guilt, the power of religion, the power of having been raised in such an environment and the inability to stop that power and control.

She's right.

While I can see parents controlling their children, and I can even see parents controlling or trying to control their children as they emerge into young adults, I cannot see how once you are an adult, hell, if you are in your thirties, how you can blame your parents for ruining your life.

Do something about it.

Get therapy.

Read self-help books.

Move away.

Make friends.

Create your own life.

It is not your parents' fault if you choose to let them ruin your life. It is not your parents' fault if you choose to let them control you. Now of course I do understand the concept of learned helplessness, and I do realize it is very possible that abused and neglected children may have been raised to behave this way.

Hell, I was.

But at what point do you, as an adult, decide to re-train yourself?

If I have been conditioned to lay down and give up because I know any attempt to change my environment is useless, it is no wonder I may spend my adolescence and early adulthood just laying down.

I may let men abuse and neglect me.

I may abuse drugs and alcohol.

I may develop and eating disorder and stay victim to it.

I may have done all of the above.

But at what point do you realize that you, as a rational creature with the amazing powers of the human mind have the ability to ... change? At what point do you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and say, "I will no longer be a victim. I will save myself. I will blame no one for my current predicament. I take full ownership of the life I am leading right now, and I vow to use my powers as a free adult to change it."

My concern is this: Has my own ability to change ruined my ability to feel compassion for those who haven't?

I no longer believe in "can't" change. 

I just don't.

I believe in "won't" change.

How to find compassion in that outlook? I suppose the Buddha or the Dalai Lama would feel great empathy for those who are stuck in dukkha (suffering). How awful to be a prison of your own mind.

I do remember that feeling.

I remember how helpless I felt.

I remember being weak with tears, sobbing on the cold tile of the bathroom floor because I couldn't get out of the vicious cycle of an eating disorder.

I felt helpless.

I felt I couldn't change.

Yet I still needed compassion.

Deserved it, actually, just as every soft animal does. I believe that.

But oh Buddha, how I struggle to give it. I do see the irony of my own helplessness here. Here I am, claiming that I can't change my reaction to the stubbornly helpless. A victim of my own recovery, unable to extend sympathy to those I've left behind.

That's unacceptable, of course.

I often think of Maya Angelou who once said, "When I knew better, I did better." If I go there, I find myself better able to let go of my anger at my friends and family's self-victimization. When they know better, they'll do better.

When they figure out that they themselves hold the keys to their own freedom, they will open the door. They will take advice. They will make phone calls. They will do something about it. In the meantime, I can continue to point out that there is a way to change if they ask me. I can sympathize with their suffering. I can fervently hope they find a way to change.

To believe they can change.

To find it in their own beautiful minds, brave minds, minds that are so much stronger than they realize. If only they would just risk it. Risk the unknown. Risk the fear. Risk change. Take the leap.

But who am I to push them?


Who am I to judge?

If I am human, the only thing I can do is sympathize. Lend my compassion. Be kind. I must find my way back to the place where I suffered, and there I will find the ability to connect. The ability to see, and to not turn a blind eye to my friends' suffering.



  1. Thank you thank you for this blog. I agree completely. Believe me, I literally lose it on people and at people on TV when I hear "I am like this because of my parents" My brother is VERY good at that line and his drug addiction. I just want to scream "self-responsibility" All of you. There comes a point when I don't care how bad life're an adult and you know better..right from wrong now...stop blaming your past for your current actions!

  2. “The value of compassion cannot be over-emphasized. Anyone can criticize. It takes a true believer to be compassionate. No greater burden can be borne by an individual than to know no one cares or understands.”
    ~ Arthur H. Stainback


  3. I recently found out that a friend of mine completely lost it and had a pyschotic breakdown. She ended up in the hospital for a month. And then another week when her meds were not really helping. And I know that is what sometimes happens when someone gets "stuck" and can't bring themselves to do anything about it. Do we really want it to go that far? I know this is only one of endless possibilities, but it is a possiblity... and a very sad one for a working mom with very young children.

    I, myself, have a full plate but was obsessed with her situation for days after she told me what happened, and my therapist had to keep telling me, "You are not her, and you CANNOT take this on."

    I knew she was right. I had to let my friend figure it out, but I offered my help. If she needs my help she can call me. She has a husband and a mother...

    I'm just saying this because I can totally identify with what you are saying... Maybe we get angry because we wish we could control their situation and fix it for them instead of letting them live their own journey? Oh, wait. That is what you said. Haha! But, really, I think for me it is that desire to control.

    Perhaps you empathize so much it hurts and you are operating from that place? And that is why you get so angry for them? And at them?


  4. I find that the older I get, the harder it is to blame others for who I am.

  5. Great post.

    I have compassion for people, but if they are a broken record and refuse to WANT to change their situation, I don't.

    I have many friends that date 'bad boys' and think they're going to change them over time. They date them because they are attracted to the excitement, but in the end, want a nice guy. I tell them if you want a nice guy, date one and stop thinking you're going to change someone.

  6. I think you might be forgetting what is at the very heart of helplessness . . . now, I don't blame you for being irritated by people who blame others or who are victims because it is simply easier to do so, but when you think of the core meaning of the word "helpless," it's hard not to feel compassion. Being literally unable to help oneself, powerless . . . it's one of the most frightening emotions in the world, I believe. Hopefully, over time, that person will find the strength and the courage to make a change, to rid himself of that lack of power, that inability to help oneself, but until that time, imagine the desperate fear that comes with true helplessness.

    I can remember it.

    Vividly, and until someone showed me the steps to make changes, I had no clue how I could change my situation.

    But we all have those blind spots.

    I keep this on my desktop at work. It's not Buddha, but it does help me.

    Prayer of St. Francis

    Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
    where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    where there is injury, pardon;
    where there is doubt, faith;
    where there is despair, hope;
    where there is darkness, light;
    and where there is sadness, joy.
    O Divine Master,
    grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
    to be understood, as to understand;
    to be loved, as to love;
    for it is in giving that we receive,
    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

  7. Particularly:

    "where there is despair, hope."

  8. I have recently watched two friends spiral out of control in destructive relationships. It's hard not to want to dole out tough love instead of compassion. It's hard to watch them hurt themselves over and over again. It makes me not want to be around them, which is a crappy thing for a friend to say. I haven't been able to find my compassion for them, but I have been able to switch off the frustration. To just be when I am around them and maybe that's enough.

    We all have to focus on keeping our own sides of the street clean. But sometimes it's hard not to want to take an industrial vacuum to your neighbor's sidewalk.

  9. I think that sometimes when we've been there and we can identify, when we're reminded once we've found the strength to persevere, it's hard to be compassionate. It's hard not to be mad at ourselves wearing their cloths. -Because once you're on the other side of it, we just want to smack them in the head and say, "You fucking CAN do it!" But we'd rather have that chance to smack our old selves.

    I was part of a threesome (of FRIENDS, dirty bird!), where in one of us was the poster child for victims. Nobody was meaner to her than she to herself, and yet we were all doing it TO HER. I hung in there for YEARS- partly because I do understand, I just had a much easier time rejecting the crap. I even let her go ahead and judge me and think I was some kind of whore for just being able to CONVERSE with the opposite sex and not hate myself for being bigger than a size 4. (How dare I?!)

    Eventually she went too far and all I could do was walk. Even so, I felt fucking terrible. I was just another person who abandoned her, in fact, I was the LAST of all of us- but she truly had gone too far.

    I ran into her about five years later. She was finally thin, and she finally had that cute graphic baby T she always wanted, and since she had those things, she had finally started dating! And swimming! And shopping without crying- the whole dream life shabang! She made new friends, she got out there and finally sang in a band, everything she "couldn't" do while I was holding her hand for all those years.

    My heart was in the right place, I had nothing but compassion for her, and I only helped her stay in her cage.

    She has now been married for almost two years, they have a one year old little girl... But she married a schmuck who doesn't want to work very hard at anything (because she was "too old to be too picky" by the time she was the exact right weight for dating:p) and she doesn't feel that great about herself because, guess what you're NOT right after you have a baby? "thin enough".

    She's had shrinks, medication, self help books, and a huge triumph that was all her own doing, but she never learned the one thing I tried so hard to show her. YOU ARE O FUCKING KAY! You're not a pair of pants or a sundress. When you can be okay with yourself, you win.

    I think I had a point that made sense when I started. *b*

    I still don't know what the right thing to do is. Maybe expressing compassion isn't always the best thing? One way or the other, we're all in progress, and I respect the hell out of your attention to these things.

  10. ahh, yes - the endless cycle of "am I enabling or helping?" it is hard to decide which you're doing when you do not have the proper love for the friend. (and yes, parental guilt is hard - I know)

    loving doesn't always mean giving them the knife to continue to make the cuts. compassion doesn't always mean, you agree with them. but, it means you might have to be there with the tissues - the flip side is you can also be there with the confetti.

  11. "Risk the unknown. Risk the fear. Risk change"

    Easier said than done. But once you've made the leap and see how worth it everything that led to getting to the other side was.... well it's hard not to think of the people who are still paralyzed by the fear as somehow wasting their lives. Or weak. Especially when you know how capable and strong they are.

    There's a difference between lack of compassion and frustration with stagnancy or the hope for something better... something more... for others, but it's a fine line.

  12. I spent a long time in a marriage that I wasn't happy with. Because he did this or he did that. Until one day it hit me that I was the one choosing to be in this relationship. So if I was unhappy, and I didn't leave, then I had no one to blame but me. I couldn't blame him anymore that I was unhappy because I was now choosing it for myself. And then I was able to leave.

    I think everyone has to hit that "wall" before they can see clearly what's ahead and remove themselves. Still, I have trouble having compassion for it myself.

  13. I just stumbled upon your blog & love what I'm reading so far & the fact our blogs carry the same name.. Funny!

  14. Wow! What a deep, insightful post. i feel so superfulous writing about the things I do. Congratulations on an excellent piece.

  15. Thank you, so much, for this post.

  16. I also struggle with being compassionate towards others who have the power to change their lives and do not.... thanks for sharing. This gave me new perspective.

  17. You are absolutely correct. We are who we think we are. We create the world that we inhabit and we do this in our own minds. The Buddha or the Dalia Lama would feel sorrow for those that are stuck. But they would also council them to look inward. I don't think you should think less of yourself because you have learned one of life's truths. It all takes place in our minds and no one else is responsible for where we are. Peace, Howie

  18. We cant know what we arent taught. Sometimes we are the Buddha and need the tolerance to share our lessons.

    Nice Peace

  19. This was very timely and helpful for me. Thank you.

  20. I often feel stuck, because I'm afraid to move in a direction. What if it's wrong? What if the other one is better and I don't choose it? What if, what if, what if...

    Blind spots in compassion is an interesting way to put it.

  21. Man, I am totally on board with this. My sister has been on this ride for years....thankfully, she woke up july 9th and decided she needed to be in charge of her own life and had herself committed for 72 hour psych evaluation and now she is getting the help she needs. I have struggled with her issues for all of the years she has used them as a crutch for not 'getting on with her life'....I know exactly where you are coming from....and I have beat myself up relentlessly for not being able to find compassion for her....and lot's of times for others.....HOWEVER, I recognize this about myself, acknowledge it and make every effort I can to work toward that end, finding compassion for her. My favorite prayer, next to the Serenity prayer is the Responsibility Prayer:

    I am responsible for what I see.

    I choose the feelings I experience and I decide upon the goal I would achieve.

    And everything that seems to happen to me I ask for, and receive as I have asked.

    These two prayers keep my sane and remind me that I'm in charge of my life and not anyone else....

    Great Post!

  22. That was a very brave and honest post. Thank you for sharing.

    I find that the older I get the less tolerance I have for the "parents blame game". How can middle aged people keep blaming mommy and daddy for their problems.

    Friends know they can turn to me for help but that I will tell it like it is, at least from my point of view, and it usually includes telling them to "move on", and/or get therapy. Since I've been there I think i've earned the right to be honest with them.


  23. ch ch ch ch ch changes!

    ~Mickey Joe~

  24. this was what I needed for today. Don't call him don't call him. I can't change him.

  25. Victims of life, I call them. I am married to one. It's very frustrating. Life isn't what happens to us, it's just what happens. What we do with what that's important.

  26. Wonderfully open write, Mandy.

    I (think I) know how you feel and agree. It simply isn't possible to help someone in any durable way if they are not willing to help themselves.

  27. I really loved this post. I have a modicum of compassion for people who choose to make bad decisions. Frequently. Everyone is capable of "being better" as Maya said..but not everyone is willing. The woe is me tactic is my least favorite. Period.

    Very thoughtful post...

  28. I feel like I could have written this post. (Except that I was the one with the manipulative religious parents rather than the one with the eating disorder...)

    Like you, I'm disturbed by my lack of compassion for the helpless. I sometimes wonder if what I really have is a lack of compassion for my former (helpless) self?

  29. In one of my first experiences with a grief counsellor (a few years after my dad died), he put a chair beside me and told me to visualize myself sitting there, crying. I was then to tell myself to stop crying. He was a little taken aback when this didn't get me started crying as he had planned. But I had learned by then that crying was weakness and I was damned if I'd be perceived as weak.

    Now, 25 years later, I don't think I'm a terribly compassionate person, in general. I figure that since I had to get through all the hard stuff on my own, other people should be able to get through it too. Of course I know life doesn't work like that, and I'm not sure life would be better if it did, but that's my karma to worry about, I suppose.


  30. Just Jeff: Thanks for reading it, sir.

    Svaha: Word.

    Cajun Soleil: I suspect that any intolerance I have for others is really a deep-seated intolerance of something I don't like about myself.

    Mobius: Inconvenient, isn't it?

    Little Miss Blogger: *Sigh* I think we've all been there at least once, no?

    Caroline: I like that St. Francis prayer. Sounds v buddhist to me.

    Mel Heth: Hee. Especially when you have OCD-lite and a gallon of Windex.

    Mona Lott: Maybe it isn't. I think we can be present without being enabling, perhaps.

    Char: Exactly right.

    Shannon: Yes, I've got to watch that line so I don't slip into becoming a mean old lady.

    Sara: Yeah, seems we all have to hit our own personal wall. Can't borrow other people's collisions.

    Just a girl: Well of course you'd like it. We must have the same taste in copy!

    Nice to meet you.

    Eva: Glad you liked it. Thank you for the compliment.

    SRB: Thank you for taking the time to read it.

    Lindsay: I'm glad. It's nice to not be alone.

    Howie: Thank you, sir.

    Nice Peace of Buddha: Wow. You just gave me a little jolt of enlightenment. Thank you, bodhisattvah.

    Wow, That Was Awkward: I'm glad.

    Georgie K. Buttons: A nice way to put it or a fancy dressing for a not-so-nice trait? ;-)

    An Open Heart: That's a powerful perspective.

    Joanna: I'm open and honest in this blog until the trolls come along and shame me into silence. I'm glad you liked this.

    Mango: No you are!

    Mickey Jo: Okay.

    Prosy: Don't do it, girl.

    Just LD: Yeah, but you're smart like that.

    Mike129: Bingo.

    JennyMac: Thanks for reading.

    Liza: I really think that is the heart of the matter. Oh sage one.

    Betty: Maybe you've got more work to do. I suspect I do.

  31. Hi Mandy,
    My two cents:
    Each person is doing their best,
    we are all doing our best but
    we also have fears.
    Some you realize have no place
    in life, some stay with us.
    The fear of failure shows when
    people blame others for what
    might have been.
    Last, fear can shape our lives
    and nothing will change that fear...
    fear of the water, swimming etc.
    I once asked my cousin,
    who was afraid of water,
    what would she do if her child
    called for help.
    She answered: "I don't know"
    My view of life has changed
    over the years for the better.
    I found your blog on MySpace
    and with your words I know
    I'm a better person. Thanks.


  32. I SO agree...and have very little compassion for the "WO is me" or the "it wasn't my fault I did it" scenario...
    Get a Life and deal with your crap!
    what a great Post.
    Thanks for sharing.

  33. Daring post. You know, HH would say, have compassion even for those who use the victim pose because they're suffering, too, and blind to their own internal creation of their misery. Western religion would say forgive those who know not what they do. Of course, I fall short of compassion every day, especially for people who invite me to the misery dance. But you can step off the waltz any time you see it. A good way of saying it to them is, why, yes, you might be right. lol

  34. I hear you. I find compassion starts to creep in when I whisper in my thoughts, "I forgive myself". You know, for *being* that person. Then I feel compassion for about 2 seconds.

    Which is a toe-hold. :)

  35. Great gave me a great deal think ponder.


  36. What another person's journey is about is theirs alone. There is a balance between enabling laziness and responsibility.
    James Cagney contributed his thoughts in a collection of writings called "Words to Live By
    Cagney said he felt sad that more parents did not teach their children to take care of the small things in life so they won't become big things later I guess that would mean by taking action even small steps become a self fulfilling positive result.

    -E.B Pusey said,

    1. Allow yourself to complain of nothing,not even the weather.

    2. Never picture yourself to yourself under any circumstances in which you are not.

    3. Never compare your own lot with that of another.

    4. Never allow yourself to dwell on the wish that this or that had been otherwise than it was,or is.

    5. Never dwell on tomorrow.

    _ E.B.Pusey.

    How do you pronounce Pusey anyway?
    That's probably the only reason I took the trouble to post it. :P

  37. Interesting, I have spent some time browsing your site and I either love it or hate, and I cannot decide. This is the first article that inspired me to respond, though.

    I know people, a number of them, who are definitely incapable of extricating themselves from poor circumstances.

    I know many of them cannot do it. If they had the mental outlook needed, they could, but they lack the faith that they can do anything and with their lack of faith comes lack of motivation.

    I feel for them more than you know. I want to find a way to assist them without their consent. It is their "attitudes and beliefs" that must be addressed and they cannot make it happen themselves because of their attitudes and beliefs. Others can help such people. I am not sure how yet, but I hope to figure it out.

    By the way, the positive sense of optimism on your site is very refreshing. I think that's what I like. Not sure what I don't like, maybe nothing.