Friday, May 15, 2009
Compassion; The Default
I'm going to tell a story now, related to me by a friend about her relationship with another woman, a mutual friend, let's call her Jane. Jane is a lovely person and is always ready to help. If I mention something to her she always has something to say to try to help. She will be at your house in a moments notice if you need something.
Quite a while ago my friend, the person who told me this story, let's call her Martha, had a crisis, a loss. During this crisis we all gathered to offer comfort and support and she got through and is on the path to healing. Jane was right there in the middle leading the group to help. Yesterday though, Martha confided in me that she wasn't talking to Jane and hadn't spoken to her in a while. I was surprised at this, because Jane had been fundamental in the drive to help Martha, inspiring the rest of us. My first thought was that Martha was being somewhat ungrateful and she in fact expressed that she felt that way about herself sometimes. Once she explained though, I think I understood a little better.
As part of her way of helping, Jane offers a lot of unsolicited advice. "This is what you should do" and "this is how you should fix it". She has gone as far as to say "this is what you should have done". She is also very religious and offers sentiments like "It's God's will" and "It was his time" and "you'll see him again in heaven" and things along that line. Martha is a very spiritual person but of a different religious persuasion and feels Martha is prideful in her religious beliefs. Martha and Jane actually have similar beliefs so Martha felt Jane didn't need to remind of these things at all.
In explaining to me why she was avoiding Jane, it came to light that she feels Jane does not offer compassion but rather gives advice. She also said "you have to move on" and gave suggestions as to what she should do to move on. But Martha, in her vulnerable state, only needed compassion. The type of help Jane offered was rejected by Martha, who, in her time of need, couldn't listen to it any more. She stopped answering the phone when Jane called and effectively stopped communication with her so she simply didn't have to hear it.
This was a very enlightening discussion. I had never really thought about what is appropriate help but certainly I've been offered advice over the years and I've also offered advice. I probably have offered advice when I should have offered only compassion and I've probably offered both at times.
Adlai Stephenson said "We should be careful and discriminating in all the advice we give. We should be especially careful in giving advice that we would not think of following ourselves. Most of all, we ought to avoid giving counsel which we don't follow when it damages those who take us at our word".
So Martha and I continued our discussion on the topic and in doing so we came to some conclusions. Most people do not want advice at any given time and generally just need a supportive ear to listen. If they want advice they do ask for it. If they don't ask for it though, it's best to offer compassion and a listening ear instead. Let them walk their journey, talk their talk and give understanding and empathy. If they want advice listen to the cues they give you seeking it. Questions like "What do you think I should do?" or even "I don't know what to do" might require some suggestions. And if someone calls up, as a friend did the other day and said "I need some parenting advice" then there you go, an opportunity to offer up your wisdom.
If, however you are unsure of how you can help, simply ask. "How may I help?" or "Is there anything you would like me to do for you?" before jumping into help. Because Martha found Jane also to be intrusive, she would come to her house often to check on her and help her, but seemed to take over her home when she was there, answering her phone, cooking and cleaning. Once she rearranged her countertop items in an attempt to help because she thought it would look better. Martha was highly insulted and upset, moreso than usual given the circumstances. She was used to Jane's odd ways, and passed them off as quirks generally, but given her grief, had no patience for her antics at that time. She stopped answering the door when Jane knocked.
Meanwhile, in the course of our discussion, Martha came to the understanding that Jane simply doesn't know what to do in crisis but truly is a caring person and does the best she can. Now that Martha has healed some she is going to attempt to reopen communication with Jane now that she can cope with her constant advice giving and help. She's going to be compassionate towards her and gradually bring her back in her life. She truly loves Jane and wants her friendship back.
I'm grateful for the discussion, it gave me an awareness I hadn't had before about offering advice, help and compassion and help me formulate in my mind that if I am unsure what the person wants I'll opt for compassion every time as the default. I would think that you can't go wrong with compassion.
I hope Jane and Martha mend their friendship. I believe they will. It is true that everyone is a teacher and Martha and Jane's story have certainly taught me a lesson. I'm grateful for the lessons Martha and Jane taught me.
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion ~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama
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