Don’t let compassion cross over to co-dependence
BY DAVID RICKEY— In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul says: “Bear one another’s burdens” and a few sentences later he says: “For all must carry their own loads.” This is an interesting example of the tension between compassion and co-dependence.
Compassion is certainly the hallmark of most if not all spiritual paths. But for many of us, it is difficult to know when compassion slips over to co-dependence. I wanted to share some ruminations on this problem.
Denying pain’s karmic “pay-off”
Compassion literally means to suffer with another, to experience the suffering of others and somehow respond in a way that seeks to alleviate their suffering, partly at least, by making it our own and then seeking to end it. Co-dependence, then, is taking a certain responsibility for the suffering of another, with the conscious intention of alleviating that suffering, but instead ending up suffering so that the other doesn’t suffer.
Given that description, in traditional Christianity what we have in the story of Jesus is called “compassion” but it amounts to co-dependence. We are dependent upon Christ’s taking on our suffering, more specifically the burden of our sins, alleviating our suffering by his own death. In a recent discussion with a friend who also tends toward codependency, I heard her say:
“Rescuing someone prevents them from working through their Karma.”
That hit me right between the eyes.
If we understand that life presents us with precisely the situations we need to learn our lessons, then when we rescue someone we are literally taking them out of that classroom. And, as codependents know all too well that person will very soon enroll in the same class, perhaps just with a different teacher. Karma will make sure of it.
Live and let learn
So is there a compassionate answer? There is, but it is twofold, because there are two levels of Karma going on. “Others” have their Karma, and the situations they keep “finding themselves in” are happening to teach them lessons. Part of “our” karma is experiencing the repetitive disappointments of trying to “fix” or “rescue” others.
The compassionate answer begins when we work on ourselves. This involves looking at the need we have to control others, the over-identification with them that makes it so difficult to stand by them without fixing them, and the lack of trust we have in the process of growth that Karma implies. Once we learn this lesson, we can stand with others, perhaps at a more appropriate distance, supporting their working on themselves rather than trying to do it for them.
Perhaps “Bear one another’s burdens” might actually mean “bear with” another’s living with and through their burdens, so that each can, in fact, grow to “carry their own load”. I don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. Rather, I believe that Jesus lived his own journey fully regardless of the consequences, thereby showing me that it is humanly possible to live out and through my Karmic journey.
Compassion, then, is the willingness to love someone at an appropriate distance, encouraging them to keep growing, even and especially when that means they’re learning how to “carry their own load.” Compassion means not adding to their load, for example by seeking economic and social justice for others, but at the same time trusting in their ability to become fully their own unique person, which often requires a painful journey to achieve.
The compassionate answer comes down to Trust – trusting the Karmic process and trusting the individual’s ability to make the journey. Thus, compassion recognizes and honors the other person’s power to grow. It recognizes that we are all on the same journey, ultimately, sharing the same process of evolution that all humanity is intended to fulfill.
David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder, and counselor in San Francisco who holds a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Read David’s previous articles for Soul’s Code: Church for the 21st century: an oral and aural buffet we can all savor, and Mosques and the masks of God. Follow David on Twitter.
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