When giving hurts others


When Compassion hurts I

"The human experience is too big for one human being alone", I told my friends Kathleen and Jim recently. We are certainly social animals, designed by evolution to understand information and learn it in community. I'm not even sure that my life adventures belong to me so I've always preferred to be an open book with the desire that we all learn something. I'm also learning more as a storyteller: you are my mirror, whether you say something or not. It is my responsibility and my privilege to share. It is your choice and your opportunity to receive it.

Receiving and sharing is the topic of this new contribution to my blog. These are intrinsically human activities or, actually, activities in which all living creatures engage... maybe all things in this planet, as even rocks are not immune to what happens, i.e., they receive for example the impact of temperature and passing of time, and they also give, or release what they receive while affecting others this way. This is the reason why I've also been interested in rocks for a long time.

Receiving and giving. Accepting and letting go. Inhaling and exhaling. Stimulus and response. Quite universal, isn't it? I've suggested many times that we find balance and security in our world when receiving what we need and offering what we have. Unbalance comes from not covering our needs or not exercising our capacity to give. We need to do both things to secure our survival, also at a systemic, even planetary, level. When we do it, our body detects it with this pleasurable sensation that I call balance and security.

The concept of "compassion" which inspires many of us but is despised by many others, mistakenly associated with "pity" in the Spanish language, does not refer to more than receiving and giving. It is about offering something that we have, not at the expense of our needs but because we really need to do it. Doing it energizes us and brings balance to our world and the world; it is necessary for our survival, individual and collective. Compassion is simply exhaling...

The challenge comes when calculating how much it is healthy to give and how much we need. I must confess that I become easily obsessed with the things I want to give or share away: my adventures with cancer in this blog, my web site, my parties, my opinions about the topic of compassion. I think, and this is only my belief, that others need them and I go at great lengths, even stress myself, to reach others this way. Doing it is beneficial for me so everybody can be happy, isn't that right?... except when others do not receive these things, especially people that I love dearly and in whose well-being I'm particularly invested. The truth is that I really struggle on those occasions.

My new experience with cancer makes again crystal clear how someone else feels on the other side, when they do not wish to receive, when they believe they don't need what others are offering them. Maybe many of us have experienced the tremendous fortune of being overwhelmed by social support at one time or another in life. It is not politically correct to announce it because we are terrified of the alternative, which is not having enough support. However, it happens. Others, looking over your balance and security, offer things you don't find helpful or may even hurt you.

I can think of a few examples of acts of compassion that may hurt when offered: my compassionate behavior with my patients and colleagues at the Center where I was working less than a year ago, trying always to do a little bit more, was helping to perpetuate a general unjust system in which healthcare workers are squeezed more and more in order to serve the three goddesses of modernity (as defined by J.L. Sampedro, a former Spanish writer and economist): productivity, innovation and competition. In the long term, humanity, providers and patients, end up hurting. There's no need to invoke conspiracy theories or blame one person or one group of people. We are all to blame, the system is to blame; but is the compassion of many making things worse?

Some theorists of compassion, including myself, quote more or less the Dalai Lama while explaining that "if something does not benefit the largest number of people in the longest term" is no longer compassion. This statement feels now like a word trap that helps me keep a definition that is as perfect as far from reality. The Dalai Lama himself says that actions carried out with the best intention, and with all the possible discernment, may hurt others. There will be never the certainty that a specific action will have the expected outcome and it can still be a compassionate one. What is left if we fail then? Besides the desire to try to do it better next time, the predominant feeling of peace, perhaps balance and security, that comes along the realization that we made the best decision knowing what we did. We either win, or we learn, as Jason Mraz sings.

Similarly when deciding whether or not accepting something offered by someone else, we will seek this same sensation of peace, balance and security, more powerful than the discomfort of disappointing that person, independently from the outcome of our action. The thing is, even though I am an extraordinary and wonderful being, I can always do better. I would like to continue with this dissertation by bringing a personal example about the decision making that goes on when accepting or not a compassionate action... but I will do that in a new contribution. As Mighty Mouse used to say before commercials, at least in Spanish, "don't leave yet, there's more".