Compassion; The Default

I'm going to tell a story now, related to me by a friend about her relationship with another woman, a mutual friend, let's call her Jane. Jane is a lovely person and is always ready to help. If I mention something to her she always has something to say to try to help. She will be at your house in a moments notice if you need something.

Quite a while ago my friend, the person who told me this story, let's call her Martha, had a crisis, a loss. During this crisis we all gathered to offer comfort and support and she got through and is on the path to healing. Jane was right there in the middle leading the group to help. Yesterday though, Martha confided in me that she wasn't talking to Jane and hadn't spoken to her in a while. I was surprised at this, because Jane had been fundamental in the drive to help Martha, inspiring the rest of us. My first thought was that Martha was being somewhat ungrateful and she in fact expressed that she felt that way about herself sometimes. Once she explained though, I think I understood a little better.

As part of her way of helping, Jane offers a lot of unsolicited advice. "This is what you should do" and "this is how you should fix it". She has gone as far as to say "this is what you should have done". She is also very religious and offers sentiments like "It's God's will" and "It was his time" and "you'll see him again in heaven" and things along that line. Martha is a very spiritual person but of a different religious persuasion and feels Martha is prideful in her religious beliefs. Martha and Jane actually have similar beliefs so Martha felt Jane didn't need to remind of these things at all.

In explaining to me why she was avoiding Jane, it came to light that she feels Jane does not offer compassion but rather gives advice. She also said "you have to move on" and gave suggestions as to what she should do to move on. But Martha, in her vulnerable state, only needed compassion. The type of help Jane offered was rejected by Martha, who, in her time of need, couldn't listen to it any more. She stopped answering the phone when Jane called and effectively stopped communication with her so she simply didn't have to hear it.

This was a very enlightening discussion. I had never really thought about what is appropriate help but certainly I've been offered advice over the years and I've also offered advice. I probably have offered advice when I should have offered only compassion and I've probably offered both at times.

Adlai Stephenson said "We should be careful and discriminating in all the advice we give. We should be especially careful in giving advice that we would not think of following ourselves. Most of all, we ought to avoid giving counsel which we don't follow when it damages those who take us at our word".

So Martha and I continued our discussion on the topic and in doing so we came to some conclusions. Most people do not want advice at any given time and generally just need a supportive ear to listen. If they want advice they do ask for it. If they don't ask for it though, it's best to offer compassion and a listening ear instead. Let them walk their journey, talk their talk and give understanding and empathy. If they want advice listen to the cues they give you seeking it. Questions like "What do you think I should do?" or even "I don't know what to do" might require some suggestions. And if someone calls up, as a friend did the other day and said "I need some parenting advice" then there you go, an opportunity to offer up your wisdom.

If, however you are unsure of how you can help, simply ask. "How may I help?" or "Is there anything you would like me to do for you?" before jumping into help. Because Martha found Jane also to be intrusive, she would come to her house often to check on her and help her, but seemed to take over her home when she was there, answering her phone, cooking and cleaning. Once she rearranged her countertop items in an attempt to help because she thought it would look better. Martha was highly insulted and upset, moreso than usual given the circumstances. She was used to Jane's odd ways, and passed them off as quirks generally, but given her grief, had no patience for her antics at that time. She stopped answering the door when Jane knocked.

Meanwhile, in the course of our discussion, Martha came to the understanding that Jane simply doesn't know what to do in crisis but truly is a caring person and does the best she can. Now that Martha has healed some she is going to attempt to reopen communication with Jane now that she can cope with her constant advice giving and help. She's going to be compassionate towards her and gradually bring her back in her life. She truly loves Jane and wants her friendship back.

I'm grateful for the discussion, it gave me an awareness I hadn't had before about offering advice, help and compassion and help me formulate in my mind that if I am unsure what the person wants I'll opt for compassion every time as the default. I would think that you can't go wrong with compassion.

I hope Jane and Martha mend their friendship. I believe they will. It is true that everyone is a teacher and Martha and Jane's story have certainly taught me a lesson. I'm grateful for the lessons Martha and Jane taught me.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion ~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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Unknown said…
Your wisdom is pokin' thru agin' Darlin'.........Many of us are complicit in offering too much of one and not enough of the other. A study of the self can bring to light much of what we think is really just our own co-dependency with being needed. The saying about finger pointing carries well in soft ways as it does in harsh. There's ALL-WAYS three pointing back.
It is hard at times to discern whether or not folks want advice or just an ear....usually just an ear. It can be equally difficult to recognize through the jumbles of emotional goo when pride, and pride covers an awful big spectrum, is interfering with the ability to offer gentle or stern council to repetetive behavior. We are all such sensitive children when it comes down to it. Her friend Jane truly cares in her willingness to offer constant physical support even though Martha recognizes it as misaligned. In that situation I would ask myself, were it I,what it is that draws one to the other....for even in the partiality of acceptance there is a deeper understanding of the self, available, by looking. One of the classic old ways men learn to respect each other's space is by silently standing with the friend and offering only a silent shoulder to lean on. This traditional male attitude causes great friction between the sexes at times because of the different ways men and women offer support.
Shadow said…
you have described the difference perfectly. i too have a friend who does the advice bit. so much so that she follows up on what i've actually done about it, the next time i see her. and that just doesn't work for me. the difference is quite subtle. but it makes a huge difference. no-one is ready to do something, until they are ready in their own time. many people forget that and push. and that when compassion flies out the window. 'how may i help' is the perfect question to ask. that way you'll give what is needed. great post breeze!
Sarah Sullivan said…
Wow Breeze what a wonderful post!! I think you nailed this one. You have to take care when caring for others. There are so many belief systems now - some very different! Years ago I had a very close friend who lost a child. I went to her home as soon as I heard and was told by family to wait a week and come by again. I should have listened to my heart and come by again the next day, left a note, something to let her know I was there for her. She was not told I had stopped by and when I came by a week later - she let fly at me - at least she was honest - but she thought I had not cared enough to come by and was deeply hurt.
I agree - always ask and be an ear!
Namaste, Sarah
You captured it so beautifully!

I never told you about my father's blog....

check it out sometime....he has written some good real life stories there.....
Cam said…

Thank you for sharing this soulful exchange between you and your friend. I hope that whatever happens with Jane and Martha, they have peace in the outcome. I can think of many moments when unsolicited advice made a situation worse, but not one time did a quiet hug, or sympathetic ear do any harm...

Much love to you!
Anonymous said…
Breeze, this is yet another awesome, inspiring post. It is so interesting how the "fixers" of the world want to jump into every situation and mend things. You are so right in pointing out the importance of determining the level of help that the receiver needs - sometimes, just having someone to sit with you and share a cup of tea is enought. Other times,we do need advice. I love the example that you gave - as friends, we often make mistakes - we want to ease anothers pain, but sometimes end up inflicting more than we take away. Beautiful reminder.