Zen Buddhists use a descriptive phrase that we who are Christian should adopt as our own. The phrase is “Idiot’s Compassion.” It was first used by Chogyam Trungpa, a provocative and controversial Tibetan who helped bring Buddhism to the West in the 1970s. According to Trungpa, “Idiot’s Compassion” is this intense desire to help someone who is in need, but this benevolent desire blinds the do-gooder from seeing reality.
The classic example of such behavior is the relationship between the addict and the enabler. Suppose an alcoholic friend comes to you in much suffering. Her body is racked by convulsions and tremors. She is financially used up. She is tormented by her disease. She begs you for a drink. You are persuaded to offer her a drink – just one drink – to alleviate her immediate pain. You do this, in your own mind, out of mercy. Yet, this act is far from merciful.
In providing the addict another drink, another high, or another hit, you have actually given her more of the poison that will ultimately take her life. This is not mercy. It is foolish cruelty. It is “Idiot’s Compassion.” The Hebrew sages had a word for one who could not be helped. They called such a person a “fool.”
There was a time when a fool was merely an entertainer. Fools were common in the palaces of kings and queens, court jesters who made the monarchy laugh. It was not the most secure job, as the fool could easily be beheaded or disemboweled for a bad joke. Thus, a fool was someone who not only had the job of being laughed at, but over time became anyone idiotic enough to even take such a job.
As the word and its use have evolved over time, a fool is someone who simply “lacks good judgment.” Maybe it is immaturity. Maybe it is ignorance. Maybe it is inexperience or a lack of education. It’s a person not capable of making good choices. The book of Proverbs goes further. In that ancient book of Hebrew wisdom, a fool is described a hundred or so times. The word means “fat,” “heavy,” or “thick.”
It is someone who is immovable, stuck, unyielding, and stubborn. It is the person who refuses to “get it,” who refuses to learn, and refuses to accept correction or critique. This person cannot be taught – not by people and not by his or her circumstances. In the words of Hebrew scholar William Wilson, “The fool has a weak mind but confident expectations,” so it’s damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, and nothing you say or do will make a bit of difference with such a person.
If you don’t believe me, go into business with a fool, marry a fool, move in with a fool, work for a fool, hire a fool, and you will discover it to be one of the most maddening experiences of your life. The better part of wisdom is to keep some distance, for a fool is as dangerous and toxic as poison, and will suck you into a never-ending death dance.
Now, I know this can be hard wisdom to accept, especially for those of us who are engineered to “help” others. We want to solve their problems, be a listening friend, or offer a little support while they are down on their luck. In most cases, this is gracious and appropriate intervention, but when it comes to the fool, there is no fixing them. You might as well try to rescue a drowning man who is still fighting the water. Both the savior and saved will drown in the struggle.
No, I’m not advocating a lack of compassion for those who need some help along life’s way. I’m only calling attention to the fact that, in the words of the old Greek proverb, “Talking sense to a fool only makes you foolish.” For once you are tangled up with one who refuses to learn or listen, he has a way of making you look and behave like an idiot as well.