Is a lack of compassion apathy? Yet is a lack of distance meddling?
In my last post I wrote about allowing people to find their own path. I spoke of allowing people to recognize and endure through their own obstacles. I acknowledged my need to accept the challenges others face as potentially having value for them, as being a source from which they may grow through their own private experiences.
From this has been born a new challenge for me: To flush out where I am being tolerant as opposed to dispassionate. To determine where I am being dismissive toward the struggles of others vs. allowing them room to travel the roads, rivers, and swamps of their experiences. When I find myself empathizing with the struggles of others, I feel the need to help, which could potentially short-circuit their opportunity to grow from their challenges. So I pull back to give them space to live their lives and find myself applying an emotional numbing agent to my empathic senses.
How did I manage to place such a level of disorientation on my perspective? To find myself walking the tightrope between compassion and dispassion. I peer over one side and see myself potentially plummeting into the act of trying to “fix” others, so I quickly turn to the other side to see the long drop into detachment and apathy. Where’s the creamy middle, where’s the sweet spot where I can hold onto the center of the balancing pole, where I can feel compassion while allowing others to travel their own journeys and make their own mistakes?
Yesterday my coworker mentioned how he sometimes encountered a clerk at a grocery store, and during each encounter when he asked the clerk how he was doing he would say something to the effect of: “Could be better… I’m stuck here at work”. On one such occasion he had been overheard by an elderly gentleman who reminded him that he was fortunate to have a job, that there were many people who are currently struggling to find work and that he should be thankful for his good fortune. The clerk replied, “Yeah, I suppose that’s true.” On the next encounter with the clerk my coworker reported that he was back to his standard grousing.
Again I found myself frustrated by this clerk’s perspective that he was chained to his circumstance, that he had absolutely no other option than to work for this grocery store. I found myself teetering back and forth over the split precipices, feeling sorry for him as there must have been a myriad of experiences that led him to this belief, then retracting my sympathy, dismissively brushing it away with my intolerance toward the victim mentality.
I’m reminded of the time I gave up cigarettes. I had attempted to quit half a dozen times prior to the last time. No amount of cajoling or lecturing or health warnings could serve as an incentive to leave the habit behind for good. It wasn’t until I was ready, until I was grounded in my determination to make that change, to crawl through the razor wire and land mines of kicking the habit, of slaying the dragon that is nicotine withdrawal.
It is at this point I can remind myself of the difficulty. I can hold compassion by reminding myself that it is within one’s own time at one’s own pace that change is made. When they are reaching for the shore I can cheer them on and remind them they can do it. In the meantime I can keep good thoughts until they find their own way through their own dark woods. And I can focus on finding my way through mine.