Why Compassion Won’t Work for You

“You’re writing about love!” he said. “I saw this video from the School of Life about ‘Why Polyamory Won’t Work for You’ ; that might be some good fodder for the blog.”

I groaned. “Oh, yes, I saw that. It was horrible.” My friend is monogamous, I am polyamorous, and he and I have talked about the differences for a couple of decades now.

He looked surprised at my reaction. “Horrible? I thought it brought up some good points about challenges and such that we’ve talked about before.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “But it also played into ridiculous stereotypes and assumptions about polyamory that I’m really tired of hearing.” I tried to keep from getting ranty, but I could hear my voice getting louder. “Starting with the bit about ‘being at an orgy’, which gives the idea that the only reason someone would be poly is because they want to have more sex…”

We should picture how challenging it can be when, at an orgy, our partner gives us a wink as they disappear into a softly lit bedroom with two other people, we make a sign to join them, but are firmly rebuffed by one of the strangers who asks gruffly who the weirdo with the strange underwear might be. – The Book of Life

As we talked, and I brought up all the terrible logical fallacies and assumptions that made me uncomfortable with the video (and transcript, as linked above) – I could see that this was surprising to him. When he’d watched the video, he’d assumed I would agree with and like it. I also saw one of the reasons why I love that man: he was trying hard to understand it, to see it from my point of view.

I don’t think he really reached understanding, though, and that makes sense; he’s not me.

And that’s why, to borrow a title from the School of Life, compassion won’t work for you.

The Compassion Heuristic

Simply put, it’s illogical. Compassion implies a denial of the evidence of our own senses, that goes something like this:

That person seems bothered by that thing. But that thing doesn’t bother me. Why should that person be bothered? They say it is hurting them, but I can’t see any evidence of harm; what I do see is their reaction, which seems very out-of-proportion to the thing which does not bother me.

You see this over and over again, ranging from a parent rolling their eyes at a child’s tantrum to larger societal issues such as Black Lives Matter. If you think that you or I don’t do this at some point in every day life, then you’re not paying attention. Maybe Buddha or Brené Brown manage that; mere mortals can’t manage it.

Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it means you’re human. And even better, there’s a pretty straightforward method for faking it. Well, faking it might not be the best word for it, but let’s just say that there’s a simple way for you to both get better at the action of compassion while at the same time avoiding looking like an insensitive jerk.

Here it is:

If someone NOT YOU tells you that something bothers them,

believe them.

The “Not You” is kind of the key there. Of course, most people are Not You; but some are more Not You than others. That’s where the second part of the heuristic comes into play:

How much you believe them should be directly proportionate to how NOT YOU they are.

My friend and I are both part of a demographic that often has problems understanding the concerns of Black Lives Matter; we are not Black, we do not have friends or relatives being killed by police, we are not profiled by law enforcement. The easy thing to do would be to say What’s the big deal?

Applying the Compassion Heuristic, however, we can see that since we don’t face those situations, we have no idea what it feels like. Instead, we can ask the experts, and listen to how they feel, and believe them.

But What If They’re Lying?

Of course, there is that particular need people have to fix things, to inform others of how they should feel, how they should react (this blog post could be a version of that, if I were not presenting this as an option rather than a commandment). It’s true that humans are only slightly better at understanding their own feelings as they are at understanding others, and that’s a pretty low bar.

But let’s look at the risks: does your belief in their pain, and any steps you take towards being compassionate – Wow, that does suck – have a downside? I can imagine all the great spiritual leaders of the world advising us: Be compassionate – but not too much, you don’t wanna look like a sucker.

No, that’s not how it works. The great thing about the Compassion Heuristic is that it may or may not help the person feeling the pain – but it will definitely help you, if only through the deliberate practice of trying to make hard times happier.

What have you got to lose? Give it a shot. And let me know how it works for you!

Image via Takver, courtesy a Creative Commons Sharealike Attribution License

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