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."
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.
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.
Read self-help books.
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.