When Compassion Isn’t Enough

As part of my work at Hospice of Santa Barbara, a group of us attended a week-long retreat at the Metta Institute in Marin County. The theme was “Cultivating Presence” and led by Frank Ostateski, an accomplished teacher of both Zen meditation and hospice care.

            In one of his talks, Frank focused on the traditional greeting in parts of Asia – “Namaste.”  You clasp your hands palm-to-palm in front of your chin and sometimes follow with a slight bow.  It had become well-known in the West through its frequent use as a way to close a yoga class and was often said to symbolize “I bow to the sacred in you.”  Frank had closed his classes with the familiar gesture, and as students we returned the blessing.

At one session, Frank focused on a deeper meaning “Namaste” can have. One hand can represent the virtue of compassion and the other hand wisdom. He went on to describe the importance of the two virtues always being combined. We may feel great compassion for someone and feel the impulse to take an action. However, actions arising from a genuine motive may have unintended consequences. Therefore, it is critical to evaluate the compassionate urge with patient and practical wisdom if we want to make the best choices.

            I thought this was very helpful and began to share this concept when I was doing the initial training session for hospice volunteers.  Many are led into hospice service out of a compassion for those who are dying, but it is critical we always seek to place that emotion in the presence of wisdom from trained staff and veteran volunteers.  I often used the following story as an illustration. 

            Once we had a very caring volunteer assigned to a low-income family where the father had died.  The volunteer had spent time with the young son in the afternoon and when he dropped the boy off back at home, realized the family had very little food. Moved by compassion and wanting to make a difference, he and a friend went to Costco and bought several hundred dollars’ worth of food for the family and dropped it off at the house.  Soon after, one of the family members called our staff member responsible for the case. They noted how appreciative they were but said they did not have sufficient refrigerated storage to keep so much food and were embarrassed it would be going to waste.  If the volunteer had run his idea by our trained staff member, he would have been affirmed for the impulse, but guided into an action that would better fit the situation.  The compassionate value needed to be matched by wisdom.

            I was reminded of the charge Jesus gives his disciples when he sends them out in pairs for the first time: “… so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16).   The serpent was seen a very subtle and clever creature (it was not always identified as evil as it became in later tradition.)  Doves were seen as pure and often symbols for the divine spirit.  Jesus is saying: be open and trusting, but also be smart and strategic.

            I have thought of this many times in my life and career, which I have spent in religious and nonprofit communities.  It was always natural for me to approach any challenging situation with compassion and tact.  Many times, those values led to outcomes I felt good about.  But as time went on and my responsibilities grew, I encountered more complex situations where compassion and “innocence” alone were not enough. I benefited from practical wisdom from others who understood the complexity of organizational challenges and the need to make unpopular decisions that could be perceived as uncaring. When I was able to incorporate that wisdom, outcomes improved.  

            Anyone who has been involved in 12-step programs knows this well.  If someone you care about is struggling with addiction and they beg you for money or help, it is a natural reaction to meet their requests. But that can often make the situation worse.  You need the accumulated wisdom of the support group and the program to make the best choices.

            Caring, empathy, love and compassion are prized virtues.  But the best outcomes arise when they are blended with voices of experience and wisdom. Namaste!

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