Controversial

Can compassion go wrong?

Every day, I take a walk by the sea. And every day, I cross paths with this man and his dog. The dog has only three legs – one of the hind legs is completely missing.

The man is walking quite fast, and the dog is hobbling along, struggling to keep up with his three legs in the soft, shifting sand. Every day I sit down on a bench and watch how the man throws a ball for his dog; not only along the beach, but also far out in the water. The dog does its best to catch the ball, huffing and puffing, but it’s clearly struggling (and who wouldn’t, with one limb missing?). Swimming is even more of an effort.

Barriers - maybe they only exist in our heads, not in theirs?

Barriers – maybe they only exist in our heads, not in theirs?

I’ve been watching them over a period of a few weeks, feeling compassion for that poor dog, wondering how he lost his leg. I felt sorry for him, not being able to be a “normal” dog, living a normal dog’s life which includes running, swimming, and chasing birds. Doing all those things that “normal” dogs do. And I wondered how his owner can be so cruel to keep on making him do things he clearly wasn’t capable of doing. Was the owner not painfully underlining his dog’s disabilities? How terrible!

Until one day I took a closer look. And I realised that this dog was terribly enjoying himself. He simply doesn’t know he’s disabled. He doesn’t realise something is wrong, precisely because he is being treated like any other dog out there. He’s not being belittled, he’s being challenged. He’s being trusted – his owner has faith in the strength of his dog. Watching them interact, it really felt as if there wasn’t anything wrong.

Believe in the strength of others, rather than doubt it.

Believe in the strength of others, rather than doubt it.

So I wonder – is being compassionate the wrong thing? At least sometimes? How about treating someone who is disabled – or just “different” in any other way – just like you would treat anyone else? A story my husband told me the other day came to my mind:

We were walking behind a man in a wheelchair who was spending quite some energy wheeling himself up a slope. I suggested we should offer our help, but my husband said: “I won’t do that – I’ve tried once and have been told off. Some people don’t like being belittled, it gives them the feeling that everyone thinks they’re weak and need assistance.” It reminded me of an occurrence I had once on a train where I had offered my seat to an elderly person, just to be told off. Unintentionally, I had insulted the person by taking her as someone who is too old and weak to stand up on the train.

How do you approach the topic of compassion? Should we always offer help? Or are there situations where trying to assist can do more harm than good?

Please share your thoughts!

~ Andrea

Image credits: Here, and here.

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9 replies »

  1. This is excellent! I’ve been in similar situations many times. Usually I try to gauge the person by their face or body language. If it’s an elderly person standing on the train, for instance, I can usually tell if they’re eyeing my seat. But @Thintri’s response above is great. I don’t think we should ever refuse people our compassion, even out of fear. If they don’t accept compassion, that is their issue, not ours to fear. And if they respond in a “dickish” way, it’s our job as compassionate people to let their reaction roll over us and not be reactionary or affected by it.

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  2. I don’t know that I think compassion can ever be wrong as long as you keep in mind that not everyone will necessarily accept it. I’d rather offer and be denied (even rudely, though I agree with Thintri on that point) than let the opportunity pass by. I’d rather my kids do that, too.

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  3. This is especially timely for me! I’m about to start offering yoga classes at a drug and alcohol rehab facility. More than that, it’s clientele is primarily indigent, nearly half referred form the court system. I keep catching myself “feeling sorry” for these folks, thinking I’ll have to slow down or make the yoga “easier” for them because of everything they’ve been through.

    In fact, often what people in that position need are the reminder that they are strong and capable — and being challenged is a great way to offer that! We often confuse compassion with pity — one puts us on the exact same level as the other, while I find the other is a defense mechanism and makes us feel somehow superior. Compassion + humility are about the best combination I think any of us can walk around with!

    Great post. I’ve always wanted a three legged dog!

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  4. It is hard to know when to offer help. I usually err on the side of offering though. I haven’t had anyone rebuff me in a rude manner yet. It seems that even when people decline they appreciate that someone cares enough to ask.

    Interesting process that you went through with the dog on the beach. It pained me just to think of that poor dog struggling as it did you. Taking a closer and more careful look convinced you otherwise! No rush to judgement there…I admire your ability to sit with the uncomfortable feelings.

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  5. To get angry at someone who, in all good intentions, offers help, is pretty dickish behavior, I don’t care who it is. I had polio at age 2, I’ve been disabled all my life. I used to walk with a cane, now I need crutches. I’ve always encountered people who hold a door open, I’ll thank them without making an issue of it. Sometimes they’ll ask me if I need help, and I politely decline. If someone is obviously struggling, I see no problem with someone offering help. I’ve done it myself. Generally, though, you’re safe minding your own business (that’s usually better) unless something extreme is happening.
    When I take my wife grocery shopping, I wait in the car for her. There’s an older woman who often shops at the same time. I think she has an artificial leg. It takes her an incredible amount of time to get from the supermarket door to her car, I mean it’s very slow and she is clearly struggling. Every time I see this, someone – usually more than one person – offers to help her and she always thanks them and says no. I don’t understand it myself, since it seems so difficult for her, but her wishes should be respected and she is nice about it.
    One thing to keep in mind is that if the person is older, and was always disabled, they lived in a time much different from now, where they had to deal with ridicule, insults, coldness and unbelievable insensitivity on a daily basis. Trust me, that can mess with your head. That doesn’t excuse rude behavior, but may be a factor.

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    • Thanks for bringing a new perspective to the discussion – it seems the longer I think about the topic, the more multi-layered it gets. Maybe in the end it all depends on the individual concerned, though that doesn’t help much when you need to decide if offering help is the right thing to do.

      Thanks a lot for reading!

      Andrea

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