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The Dark Side of Compassion.
Why compassion is a double edge sword
Like most of us, I have always been concerned with being a compassionate person. As a personality trait, highly compassionate people take a greater interest in other people’s problems than their own, particularly for those they think are in need, the young and the helpless. Those who considered themselves compassionate will strive to lessen the suffering of the people around them.
Most people look at helping others as central to morality, which began with the Christian doctrine of mercy and has found a home in our society as compassion. Most of our generation obsess over helping others; most of us would say our goal in life is to help others or the world. But they say every virtue pushed to the extreme becomes a vice, so what is the dark side of our obsession with compassion?
In the ancient world, they were well aware of the danger of the maternal instinct of compassion to prevent people from growing up. There is a reason the story of Oedipus has survived four thousand years from ancient Greece to now because it reflects a universal part of the human spirit, the immense difficulty in maturation. The truth is that life is suffering, and if you take away a person’s suffering, you take away their ability to grow. This dark side of compassion is why death in ancient stories is often represented as a witch or an evil woman because compassion is seen to be feminine or maternal trait; women are statistically higher in compassion than men (men test in the 39th percentile on average while women fall around the 80th). For the young adventurer, setting out on their journey to independence, the mother's compassion can swallow them again. This mythological motif is repeated in stories in the ‘belly of the whale’ and ‘bowls of hell’. When little red riding hood is eaten by the wolf dressed as her grandmother and when Kronos swallow Zeus and the Gods so they would not grow up and dethrone him. You get the point. The hero gains maturity by facing the most challenging path forward, and the oedipal situation is what lies behind him, a warm and safe womb from which he can never escape.
Overparenting is a real problem these days, with parents obsessively meeting their children's needs and discouraging them from meeting their own. I don’t blame parents or their children. The overparenting problem seems to be a result of society’s changing structure. We now have fewer children and more time and a more extended incumbency period as adolescence than ever before. Currently, 50% of people under 30 still live at home, which is unprecedented in historical terms. Young people who move back in with their parents are more likely to experience depression, a loss of income, and a significant partnership. According to the office of national statistics, in 1996, one-fifth of young people aged 20-34 were living at home. In 2017 that number had increased by 26% to over a quarter. Males are more likely to live at home than females, with one-third of young men aged 20-34 living with their parents. It turns out this isn’t good for the parents either with your kids return home being a significant predictor of long term depression for them too.
I have faced this same dilemma a couple of times. I have had to move twice. Most recently, with my tenancy in Belfast coming to an end, should I go home? I mean my friends are there, family, it would be infinitely more comfortable. I would make more money, and save more money, but I would regress. The first time my mam cleaned my socks or tidied my room, I would be a kid again, and I don’t want that. The Swedish philosopher Kierkegaard said there would come a time that is so prosperous, so easy, that the kindest thing you could do for people is make things harder for them. There are plenty of obstacles, but the reality is the pursuit of independence is an aggressive process, you’re going to have to fight for your freedom.
Irish people fought for centuries and died for freedom. People still obsess over freedom and rights and yet will happily live at home until they are 35. You aren’t free until you take full responsibility for your life. The journey to independence is an aggressive process. You have to say ‘no’ to the people and behaviors that stunt your growth, you have to reject the temptation of comfort and instant gratification of adolescence in favor of a more difficult path. The deck is stacked against us, but I don’t see when it hasn’t been the case in rest of Irish history. Except no-one is going to murder you now, you just have to pay a little more for your rent.
If you are waiting for rent controls and the government to help you, you will be stuck at home forever. I heard the process of maturation described as ‘going back and retrieving what you lost in childhood’ I think a lot of us lost these aggressive, independent impulses. Aggression integrated properly becomes assertiveness and leadership. So, if compassion can keep you trapped as a child, the aggressive pursuit of independence can take you to freedom.
In the Oedipal situation, a child has all the possessions they like, iPhones, fast food, whatever they desire, their needs are met, and yet they feel empty, devoid of purpose and meaning because they have given up their path to independence. In some sense, you have to be cruel, and pig-headed, the opposite of kind and compassionate. In Hansel and Gretel, the witch tempts them to stay with sweets and tasty baked treats because she wants to fatten the children before eating them. In Snow White, she is put to sleep by a delicious, red shiny apple. The message is that staying a child is tempting but if you eat the fruit of the underworld, you will fall asleep, and you might never wake up again.
So the dark side of compassion is that it treats people like infants. It is a doctrine for helping the sick, the elderly, and the young but not responsible adults. Compassion keeps people from the challenging and difficult experiences they need to grow like moving out and paying bills and being alone at 1 in the morning eating toast in your underpants. Character building stuff.
I remember once my mother asked me to take my grandparent’s bags for them down from a hotel room. I was delighted to be of use, a big strong lad like myself, but when I went to take the bag, my grandad took it instead. I saw the look in his eye was severe, and I immediately stopped. My mother gave it out to him. She didn’t want him to take the bags in case he hurt his back, which wasn’t in great shape to be fair. She wanted me to take the bag for him, but I said no. I could see carrying the bag was in danger of hurting his back, but my taking the bag was a risk of damaging something far more important; a person’s sense of independence. I aspire to be like my Grandad, protecting his independence at all costs.