Friday, May 28, 2010

Extraordinary Compassion

Upon further review, I did not accurately describe the Compassionate People in my last post. As I did not name them – and shall not – it doesn’t make much difference regarding the individuals. But as I did violence to the understanding, it deserves correction.

These are all people who show a high degree of ordinary compassion 80, 90, even 99% of the time. They are fine, exemplary individuals at those times, and we might all wish to be more like them. But there is a switch that gets thrown, a move to extraordinary compassion that creates problems. Terminology misleads here. What, after all, could be wrong with extraordinary compassion? Yet there is something subtly wrong with it, and it can lead to great cruelty.

“If you are kinder than God, you will end up being cruel.” I have tried to locate where I read that line. I believed it was in Elie Wiesel’s remarkable Souls on Fire, a liberating book on the Hassidic masters, but I cannot find it there. Perhaps it was in discussion with the person who gave me the book. Perhaps I even thought it up myself. I can’t trace it now.

First: There is a doubling-down on mercy, a determination to pursue that strategy regardless of circumstance. People get locked into patterns Mercy is sometimes the only thing that will work. There isn’t enough mercy in the world. Therefore mercy shall be my weapon against evil, and I will not abandon it no matter how things look. Even when it appears not to work, those are the times which test my compasion, and I will persevere.

I will note that Jesus was enormously merciful, but he was not always merciful. It was not that he was incapable of enough compassion or that mercy was beyond him in some circumstances, but that it is sometimes the wrong thing to do. Relatedly, mercy does not exist except within a framework of justice. If we let every thief and murderer go free in hopes that the kindness may cause repentence (heck, it works in fiction, such as Les Miserables, all the time!), we are not kindly but simply anarchic, living in a Hobbesian state of nature. The genial person called a judge who presided over such pardoning might think himself merciful, but he a horror.

We can see this readily enough in the extreme, but fall for it when it is milder. The visible difference between a high degree of ordinary mercy and the dangerous extraordinary compassion is often subtle, ambiguous.

And second: We are to forgive everything done against ourselves. We are not to allow our worldly goods to have any hold on us, lest we fail in generosity. But what is the principle when we have authority over others? If I am head of a family and someone sins against all of us, or has need of generosity from us, what right do I have to give away what belongs to them? We see clearly that this is wrong in the extreme – we cannot give away money for the baby’s food to someone who has sponged off us and is asking again. If I have no responsibility for others and choose to give up my last dollar, that is my own affair, and perhaps an excellent thing. I leave aside for the moment the question whether the gift is actually good for the recipient or whether it is ultimately destructive. That is a separate issue of cruel kindness we may explore later. For now, that is a complicating or intensifying factor, but not the central issue.

All persons of authority or influence make these decisions on behalf of others, and the judgement calls involved are dizzying. When my sons were young and I went to church meetings, or didn’t go to church meetings because I chose to be home, which was the robbery? Discerning that is what authority is for. But in either case, my generosity to one is stinginess to the other. In matters of ordinary generosity or compassion, it is mine to choose. But is it ever my right to make my children give an extraordinary gift?

The kindly people I am thinking of were all in positions of authority or great influence – perhaps that is why the sample is skewed elderly and male*. They are doctors, pastors, department heads, heads of non-profits and the like. The have the power to command the actions of others. They have the worldly authority to require others to grant more than justice. Do they have the moral authority?

The more authority one has, the more one is able to require others to go beyond justice into mercy. This differs qualitatively from a high degree of ordinary compassion. This is an enforced extraordinary compassion, and there is something terribly wrong about it.

Some dramatic examples may illustrate. If a church member who worked with the youth group molested some of them, neither the pastors nor the deacons nor a vote of the congregation can declare them forgiven in the eyes of that organization without a release from the victims and their families. But Christians are supposed to forgive, we are supposed to receive the repentant sinner back after discipline and confession… But that forgiveness is not yours to give. Any of those categories might have the worldly authority - legal or church polity authority – to declare whatever they want and enforce it, but it’s not morally right. To insist that the victims accept them back and share worship with them cannot be demanded. It is theirs to give freely, or not. Even if they are wrong to withhold it, or vindictive themselves, or would benefit from forgiving, the others do not posess the moral authority. Being kind to the one is to be cruel to the other.

The director of the homeless shelter who promises that “we” will get you a ride, because she knows one of her staff goes home that way. Those extras get promised in business as well, under the name customer service – except that it’s not the business making the gift, but the employee. One can see where it can get fuzzy. Good employees want to please the customer, and may quite willingly give; good managers are able to inspire others to greater generosity. But coercion has now moved in and taken a place at the table, even if he doesn’t eat much.

To forgive a plagiarising student and letting her keep her scholarship is robbery from the person who just missed getting it in the first place.

The social and political implications of this leap to mind pretty quickly. But let’s hold that off for a bit, and keep to the consideration of the individual. What causes some of our most compassionate individuals to flip a switch and engage in damaging, hypertrophic compassion? The political discussion may hinge on it.

*When I search intentionally for examples younger or female I can find them in memory. They will apparently have their turns.


jaed said...

there is a switch that gets thrown, a move to extraordinary compassion
flip a switch and engage in damaging, hypertrophic compassion

I don't think the phenomenon you're talking about *is* compassion. If we're thinking of the same thing, it's not so much compassion as loss of all compassion for some - and that loss of compassion throws the compassion they feel for others out of balance.

To take an example from your post, suppose we have someone confronting an abuser and a victim. Suppose he feels the normal amount of compassion (whatever that may mean) for the abuser, but has no compassion at all for the victim. He'll behave as though the abuser's needs are all-important, but this isn't because he feels so much compassion for the abuser; it's because he has no sympathy with the victim. It's a loss of compassion leading to a loss of perspective.

An example I happened to think of from politics: someone a few years ago was telling me, with great sincerity, that he could not find it in his heart to approve attacking Saddam Hussein because he saw the image of God in him. I said - and I was just musing, not really thinking about how harsh it would come across - "I guess the difference between us is that I also see that image in his victims." My interlocutor did not feel the way he did because he was so very compassionate toward Saddam Hussein but because he had no compassion toward his victims - not even enough to fully internalize the fact that they existed.

It is not extraordinary love we are seeing in such cases, but the lack of love. Defect, not excess.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think that's spot on. The visible people get compassion, the invisible ones don't exist. I'm sure there is something quite primitive or natural (depending on your spin) about it. As social creatures, dependent on the group for our survival, there was likely some advantage to responding more warmly to someone you knew the face of.

But that is, as I noted, a function of barbarism, not civilization. A person wishing to be wise as well as emotional will force himself to consider the humanity of the unseen people. How many are there? What did they do to deserve this? This is why I have always disliked argument by anecdote (see NPR, for example). It plays off our primitive rather than our elevated selves. It is essentially a trick media plays on us. It's equal opportunity deception, of course. One sees it in conservative and new media as well as MSM.

See also "opportunity cost" in economics - of the invisible person who doesn't have a job because it was never created.