The Place of Compassion
If you think of disapproval and approval of people as two opposite ends of a continuum, where would you put compassion?
It's a trick question. Compassion doesn't even belong on that continuum. Compassion is something wholly different.
You will automatically tend to sit in judgment on whatever you disapprove of. "That's wrong." "That's inappropriate." "That's ridiculous." Even saying these words out loud probably makes you feel a little bit negative, and you can feel in that negativity the seeds of judgment.
On the other hand, you will tend to elevate whatever you approve of. "That's good." "That's right." "That's wholesome."
For too many people, the whole world is divided and placed into either the approve column, or the disapprove column. Whatever column you put something in, you can, and often will, remain almost completely passive, rendering your verdict and simply declaring it and defending it from then on. You see people doing this all the time on Facebook and other social media. (Declaring and defending are also the basic fuel that fires religious fundamentalism.)
Compassion vs. Enabling
Compassion exists on another plane, a higher and better one. Compassion gets you off the approval/disapproval hamster-wheel, and moves you to action.
Mother Teresa helped the dying in Calcutta not merely because she approved or disapproved of sickness, or how people became sick, but because she had compassion for people who were suffering.
Bob and Jillian on NBC's The Biggest Loser are clearly moved by compassion for the suffering of obese people. Rather than sitting in judgment on them, they are moved to action by compassion, and dedicate their lives to relieving suffering in the particular way they do.
- First is the assumption that we must either approve or disapprove of everything. This is incorrect. A non-judgmental person, in fact, is a person who chooses, as a way of life, to stop running on the approval/disapproval hamster wheel. They simply let go of the need to render a verdict on everything.
- Second is the incorrect understanding of enabling. It is simply not true that refusing to approve or disapprove is the same as enabling. Compassion naturally fills up the emotional vacuum that is left when you withhold judgment and refuse to approve or disapprove. People don't generally enable destructive behavior because they approve of it. People enable destructive behavior because of a certain kind of destructiveness of their own. This is also called "codependence."
Approval and disapproval applied to Mother Teresa
If Mother Teresa had felt the need to approve and disapprove of things, we might have quotes from her such as, "Now I will help you, but you do realize, don't you, that you did this to yourself?" Or, "You may die from this disease, but promise me that if you don't, you will stop hanging out with infected people."
It is not disapproval of behavior, but rather compassion for suffering people, that opens the door widest for a person to be introspective and see the truth about their situation.
Approval and disapproval applied to Bob and Jillian
If Bob and Jillian were doing this from a place other than compassion, they might say, "Keep busting it so you can be valuable. Being fat is lazy and wrong, what's the matter with you?" Their presence on the ranch is evidence enough that they believe obesity is destructive. Every person on the show knows how destructive it has been. Compassion moves through destruction into creating new places of love and healing.
Approval and disapproval applied to Christian pastors
A Christian pastor working from the approval/disapproval paradigm, and faced with a parishioner who has committed adultery, might say, "Adultery is sin. You should repent." (It's quite likely the parishioner knows this and is in fact there with the pastor specifically to do that.) Or, "Look how many people you have hurt" (which the adulterer already knows as well). Or, "I'll let you keep coming to the church, but I want you to know I think what you did was wrong." (That, of course, could literally go without saying.) Compassion would allow pastor and parishioner to ache together, for the pastor to deeply enter into the suffering of the parishioner, as I assume he or she believes Christ does for us. That is where healing is found.
Approval and disapproval applied to counselors
A counselor working from this flat perspective would be likely to say, "You didn't need to say that to your husband. You should apologize."
Marge across the street could offer that insight, which the client already knows. The counselor needs to be able to bring something new to the table, and it is only compassion that brings with it the creativity that is needed to solve and heal problems.
Approval just says, "Go for it," and disapproval just says, "Cut it out." If what you are doing is right according to my hamster-wheel measurement, I encourage you to keep doing it. If it's wrong, I just tell you to stop and I have done my duty. Moreover, I now have a right to look down on you as in some way inferior until you measure up to the standard I have set.
Approval and disapproval applied to God
If God worked from this perspective, only the most perfect people would be loved and accepted. But the Christian god, at least, works from a place we call "grace," which means unmerited favor. It's completely not about who deserves it and who doesn't. The moment that comes into play, it's no longer grace. Compassion and grace and inextricably connected. In order to exercise compassion, one must be a grace-granter.
Surely this is not the way forward for a civil society in the 21st century. I hope and pray that I will be a model of compassion to those around me, and that I will be known more after I am gone for how I suffered with people and helped them rather than for strongly and clearly disapproving of whatever wrong they had done.
David Flowers blogs at http://DavidKFlowers.com on Counseling/Mental Health and Church/Spirituality issues. He founded Wildwind Community Church in 2002 and still leads that congregation. He also teaches graduate counseling students for Spring Arbor University and runs a small private counseling practice. Information about his practice is available at http://links.davidkflowers.com/counseling.