Idiot Compassion

 Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)

In a Nichols and May radio comedy sketch from the early 1960s, Elaine May plays an obnoxious American tourist named Doris Finch who visits Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his missionary hospital in Africa. Schweitzer was then regarded as the world’s greatest living saint (a position later occupied by Mother Teresa). An organist and theologian, as well as a physician, Schweitzer had made reverence for life the basis of his ethical philosophy. May’s Doris Finch questioned Mike Nichol’s German-accented Albert Schweitzer closely about this. “What is this reverence for life?” she demanded in a nasal voice. “Well, madam,” Schweitzer replied, “reverence for life is my feeling that God put everything on the earth for a reason, you see. We must respect, whether it’s a blade of grass, whether it’s a fly, whether it’s an ant.” Doris Finch was skeptical. “Well, of course, I must admit I use insect sprays and all like that. But then it’s different when you live in the city, don’t you think? Then you have to kill them, because they get in the food. They do cause diseases.” She nattered on about this and that before wandering off to find her husband. She wanted him to get an autographed picture of Schweitzer playing his organ. The sketch ended when Doris Finch left and Schweitzer called to an assistant, “If that woman comes back, kill her.”

Nichols and May played it for laughs, but their exchange points up the practical limitations of any ethical imperative, even the sanctity of life. Schweitzer’s real-life hospital, then and now, was heavily involved in combating malaria, which can only be accomplished by eradicating the mosquitoes that carry the disease. We deem human life to be of greater value than a blade of grass, a fly – or a mosquito. There are limits even to the compassion we show toward our fellow human beings. This was a lesson I learned years ago when I was approached by a panhandler on the streets of Washington, DC. Without giving it much thought, I handed him the change in my pocket and continued on. A colleague who was with me gently chided me for my generosity. He identified himself as a recovering alcoholic and suggested I was probably facilitating the panhandler’s addiction. I later learned that Buddhists have a term for such thoughtless acts of generosity; they call it “idiot compassion.”

Buddha, like Jesus, taught his followers to love one another. But what if our act of kindness inadvertently causes harm? Perhaps the most compassionate thing we can do in certain circumstances is just to say “no,” if not to deliver a swift kick in the pants. Unless we thoroughly understand our own motives, we are likely to project our own needs onto those we are ostensibly helping. Our act of generosity may be nothing more than an attempt to bolster our self-image as a generous person, without regard for the actual needs of others. Or we give them what they want because we can’t bear to see them suffering. We become enablers, doing for others what they should be doing for themselves.

How are we supposed to know whether a given situation requires an act of charity or a swift kick in the pants? Jesus’ marching orders to his disciples are instructive in this regard. He had no illusions about the world, warning them that he was sending them out “like sheep in the midst of wolves.” He therefore cautioned them that they should “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Too often we do just the opposite, acting as innocent as serpents and as wise as doves. Wisdom is the key. We must learn to step back from a situation to try to understand it first and then look forward to the possible consequences of our actions. The results may be counterintuitive. A good example comes from the Buddha himself. According to Mahayana tradition, he was a sea captain in a previous incarnation. As it happened, one of his passengers planned to sink the ship, killing all on board. What to do? The sea captain did not hesitate. He took an axe and hacked the passenger to death, demonstrating that killing is sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do.

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