During the past week I have had some thoughts about compassion and love. Interesting subjects! Here is a little reflection that takes a popular theme and extends it slightly:
He who has compassion gives the hungry man a fish, allowing him to eat for a day, but he may die of hunger tomorrow.
He who has wisdom teaches the hungry man to fish, allowing him to catch his own and survive in the long term, but he may starve to death while he learns to fish.
Can’t we have both?
This represents one of the key principles of the Welfare Program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Heber J. Grant once said about this program: “[We may] close the seminaries, shut down missionary work for a period of time, or even close the temples, but [we] would not let the people go hungry.” That’s right, you can’t fill people’s bellies with religion. First things first. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has some merit.
How do you apply that to daily situations? Have you ever met someone in dire need, and felt that you should help, but you were afraid that this person may become dependent on you? I have, and I dare say that psychologists come across such situations on a regular basis. What do you do? Well, you give some compassionate relief, just enough to abate the crisis and show that you care, then you start teaching emotional, physical and spiritual self-reliance. Divorced, this giving and teaching fail to produce long-term relief from suffering.
Something else I thought about, later in the week, is unconditional love (or unconditional positive regard as Carl Rogers calls it). It’s a fantastic principle, and I’ve written about it before. However, there’s one aspect we rarely think about: unconditional love for ourselves. That sounds ridiculous to some, but I think it’s vital.
Wait, isn’t self-loathing normal and healthy from time to time? Isn’t it a useful thing to make self-appraisals contingent on our performance? Why, everyone does it, don’t they? You can’t expect people to love themselves all the time, surely! That’s conceit, that’s arrogance, that’s pride!
I don’t think so. Unconditional love isn’t about being full of yourself, it’s more about self-acceptance no matter what we do, no matter what people say or do. For example, OK I messed up the other day, I treated my wife with not much respect, and I felt terrible afterwards. Does that diminish my worth? Does that give me a good reason to hate myself?
If I attribute my behaviours to my worth, I’m going to find it very difficult to change, because individual worth is a concept that is set, it’s not meant to change with time. If I think “I messed up again, I’m so worthless, it’s so typical of me, I have no self-control, blah blah blah…”, I’m basically saying: “I’m not going to do anything about this because I’m doomed to fail, it’s my character, I’m a failure and always will be.”
In other words, we’re saying: “It’s not my fault, I’m a victim.”
The nice thing about being a victim (or acting like one) is that it tickles people’s compassion, and they feel that they ought to give some reassurance, some comfort, some love. This is maintained by two assumptions:
1. People who have unconditional self-acceptance don’t get these things from other people
2. You can’t be happy without receiving these things from other people
The second assumption can be easily debunked through an analogy. It’s like saying that only people who have their physical pain alleviated through pain-killers or other remedies can experience the pleasure of absence of pain. Sure, you might appreciate it more, because the contrast is so vivid and sudden, but that appreciation is short-lived. After being free from pain for a few months or years, you will almost certainly take your pain-free existence for granted, at least most of the time. Imagine a person who enjoys “getting better” so much that he intentionally makes himself sick in order to feel better again, and does so on a regular basis.
So, to round it up, unconditional self-regard or self-acceptance is a good alternative to playing the victim role.
It’s emotional self-reliance.