Parable of the Sower: 3. Find a Balance between Compassion and Tough Love

According to Ken Wilber, what we call “compassion” and “tough love”, apparently two different concepts, are the yin and yang dimensions of the same larger category of “compassion”, with what we normally think of as “compassion” encompassing the yin and “tough love” encompassing the yang form of compassion.

Like many other complementary types, the trick is to find the balance between the two.   And yet our two political parties show what happens when this is an imbalance.

Let’s take first the Republicans, who seem to be ideologically disposed to tough love and against compassion, meaning that rather than giving someone a handout, they would rather give that person the tools with which he can lift himself by his own bootstraps (or she can lift herself by her own bootstraps, as the case may be).    This is an admirable approach, one encapsulated by the saying “give a man a fish and he will eat for an evening, but teach a man to fish and he will eat his entire life”.    The problem of course is that in emergency, the person may not be capable of even holding a fishing pole, let alone catching a fish.   So to a Democrat, a Republican often seems heartless and lacking compassion.

On the other hand, if the Democrat just keeps giving the person a fish on a regular basis, it is true that that person will be less motivated to learn how to fish.   Then you have fostered a dependency on your fish, which only diminishes the stature of the person in the long run.    So to a Republican, a Democrat often seems manipulative and co-dependent.

The real trick is to forget the political labels and ask yourself, in this situation with this person, does he or she need immediate help, in which case compassion is needed, or is it a situation in which one can give the person the tools and the encouragement needed for the person to help him or herself?   Knowing when to use compassion and when to use tough love is the real wisdom.

For example, the homeless shelter I volunteer in once or twice a month gives homeless men a place to stay for the night and a hot meal, perhaps the only one they will have received all day.   But to enter the shelter, each man has to give information on an intake form so that the social service agencies can work with him to see if a more permanent shelter is available, or if job training is available for the person to be able to get back into the work force.   So the immediate needs are taken care of through compassion, but help is also given for the person to be able to stand up on his own two feet.

If the person refuses to be helped in this manner, then he is free to leave the shelter and find his own way.  But at least a choice is offered to the person–it is up to him to make the choice that he feels is best for him.   But staying in the shelter has its responsibilities–you can enter if you are intoxicated, and you can be removed if you start fighting with one of the others in the shelter.   So even with the limited help the person is getting, they are also being encouraged to take responsibility for their body, and for the communal space in which he is staying.

And it makes me feel sleep a little bit easier, knowing that I am part of a group of volunteers that offers them a step outside of the cold and towards a better life–if they are willing to take it.


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