I was re-reading Michael Greenberg’s “Hurry Down Sunshine” last week for a writing workshop I’m taking and when I saw the phrase ‘idiot compassion,’ it struck me as though I hadn’t read it before. In fact, I think this was one of those memoirs I read so quickly and superficially that I’m very grateful I was led to read it again for this class. I don’t think I absorbed much of it at all the first time and I suspect that is because the notion of being locked away for mental health treatment is something I fear almost more than anything else.
But I digress….
The description of the phrase ‘idiot compassion’ was basically when you get so sucked in to someone else’s pain and suffering that you begin to empathize on a cellular level. You begin to have trouble separating your pain from theirs and you render yourself completely incapable of offering any assistance whatsoever.
Been there, done that.
I suppose the reason the words impacted me the way they did is because one of them is a favorite of mine and the other one I generally abhor. The word ‘idiot’ conjures up meanness, judgment, misunderstanding of another’s true gifts. ‘Compassion,’ on the other hand, is something for which I strive each and every time I interact with another human being. Putting the two together jolted me in to assessing how often I drag myself down that rabbit hole of compassion to the point of idiocy. How many times have I over-identified with another human being so completely that I start to panic at the emotions that are triggered in my own body? And how is that helpful?
It isn’t. Nobody who is suffering wants that kind of compassion. We may all want empathy when we are struggling with a difficult challenge, but not to the point where others appear to take on our suffering. For one thing, it isn’t possible – trust me, if it were, I would have made the enormous mistake of onboarding Bubba’s, Lola’s, and Eve’s discomfort from time to time. And, if I’m already drowning, your flailing about in the same freezing water isn’t going to do either of us any good. It might be a little less lonely there in the ocean as my lungs are filling up with fluid, but ultimately it doesn’t change my suffering a bit to know that you’re wheezing right along with me. In fact, it might increase mine by making me feel guilty you’re there at all.
More and more as I age, I am reminded that the most powerful form of compassion lies in something that looks a hell of a lot like inactivity. I call it “holding space.” It doesn’t involve telling you about my life experience with a similar issue and offering advice. Holding space doesn’t have anything to do with holding you, unless you want a hug and it will make you feel better. It is simply the act of me sitting with the acknowledgment of your pain and allowing you to feel it as you need to. Holding space is not judgment or an attempt to diminish or ‘fix’ your suffering, it is a validation of your feelings and your right to feel them. It clears the way for you to sit with your own frustration as long as you need to, knowing that I will be there for as long as it takes. I can’t take any of your pain away but I can help you hold it for a while until the time comes for it to move on through. And so if you ever have occasion to hear me say I am sending love and light your way, it simply means that I am holding space for you. It means that within that space there will be love and light surrounding you for as long as you need. That doesn’t mean I don’t desperately wish there was something more tangible I could do to help, but idiot compassion doesn’t help any of us.