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5 Ways Not to Be a Pushover When You Practice Compassion

It starts with the attitude of telling someone: 'Try having more compassion. If you did, you’d see things my way.'

Unfortunately, we spiritual-progressive types, including but not limited to dharma heads, seem to be particularly prone to something I call compassion-baiting.

General compassion-baiting sounds something like:

Try having more compassion. If you did, you’d see things my way.

And in social justice situations, specifically, compassion-baiting often sounds like:

You’re more upset / loud / angry about social harm than I, arbiter, deem appropriate. You must therefore be lacking in wisdom or compassion.

F**k that noise, for real.

Why so touchy, you ask? Let’s break it down: 5 major fails associated with compassion-baiting.

1. Compassion-Baiting Enables Sexual Misconduct

[Credit: FX/e-cards, via Sexual Harassment In Comics: The Tipping Point.]

It’s hard enough to come forward with an experience of sexual harassment — fearing you’ll be labeled uptight, slutty, attention-seeking, or worse.

Compassion-baiting saddles victims with the additional worry of seeming spiritually immature. After all, if we had enough compassion, we could simply, patiently, and lovingly settle any differences with our so-called harasser, right? We would practice upekkha — equanimity — and remain unruffled, uperturbed. We would do our utmost to empathize with our aggressor and assume their best intentions. We would scrutinize our own motives. We would seek harmony, not conflict.

My first experience with this was a case of internalized, self-inflicted compassion-baiting. It was back in high school. A boy in my class found it hilarious to come up next to me, standthisclose, and whisper with a grin, “Does this make you uncomfortable?”

Priding myself on an ability to stay calm (and also not wanting to give him the upper hand), I would shrug and reply, “No.”

The “joke” continued a handful of times, but I wasn’t too worried. I’m a patient, tolerant person, I thought. I can outlast this, rather than fanning the drama flames.

Then one day, a group of us were sitting in the grass near the baseball diamond. It was late spring, when the Sacramento weather starts heating up, and a lot of us, including me, were wearing shorts.

All of a sudden, I felt a hand on my upper, inner thigh. It was the boy.

“Does this make you uncomfortable?”

This time I lost it a little. “STOP IT,” I snapped, and pushed his hand away.

“Woah, woah, woah,” he taunted, half cowering in mock fear. “So angry. What are you gonna do? Sue me?”

And there it is. Even from school days, we’re taught that sexual harassment is less of a problem than our upset responses to it.

Compassion-baiting only magnifies this backwardness. Rather than seriously considering allegations of abuse, it subjects them to a litmus test of enlightened attitude.

Let’s stop this. For real.

2. It Puts a Rush Job On Forgiveness

As the wise saying goes, “Forgiveness is a process, not an event.” But peace-loving Buddhists and spiritual types, bless our hearts, are sometimes in a big hurry to reach release — to get to the good part, already.

“If you tried having some compassion, we say to ourselves and others, you would be able to let this go.”

Not always helpful, people. Not always helpful. Sometimes, honestly, patronizing as hell. And I’ve been guilty of this, too! Toward myself as well as toward others.

Don’t get me wrong: forgiveness is wonderful. There are many uplifting stories about people who have managed to forgive those who have gravely harmed them, or harmed the people they love. This is amazing and important work. Many people describe it as immensely freeing, and I think that’s why we’re so eager to share it with others. But we can use it as inspiration, as an option, offered considerately — rather than a standard by which to judge (or hasten) spiritual maturity.

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