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False Compassion

Why is it so easy to end up dating the wrong kind of guy? You say you attract losers? Read on. You may be confusing love with sympathy.

One of the Christian student groups had invited me to speak about “rules of engagement,” which turned out to mean relationship ethics. Sometimes when you address a group, the questions are about what you talked about. But sometimes they have nothing to do with it.

I was finishing up.

“… that both models of relationship leave something to be desired. You’re a part but not just a part, an individual but not just an individual. Any questions?”

I already knew it was a flop. Maybe the reason a prophet is without honor in his own country is that he does a better job prophesying when he’s out of the country. I’m not a prophet, but it’s like that with speakers.

Nobody said a word. Marcy, who headed the Speakers Program, looked unhappy. Some students had their eyes closed.

“Um. Professor Theophilus?”

A question. Jump on it. “Yes, go ahead.”

Tall guy, third row. “Could you explain what you said about ‘false compassion’?”

Had I said anything about false compassion? If I had, I didn’t remember.

“Hmmm, yes. Would you tell me which remark about false compassion you’re asking about?”

In the back of the room, the faculty sponsor — a friend of mine — was grinning and shaking his head. I knew I’d be ribbed afterward about this dismal performance.

“Well, I didn’t understand any of them,” said the tall guy. “Would you just explain what false compassion is?”

My friend made a noise that I thought was muffled laughter.

“That I can do,” I replied. “The word ‘compassion’ can mean two different things. The virtue of compassion is sympathizing in the right way, for the right things, and doing the right thing about it. The feeling of compassion is sympathy period, and it’s not always right. When it isn’t, it’s called ‘false compassion.'”

Several students began to look faintly interested. The most wide-awake-looking girl in the room said, “Could you give an example?”

“Sure,” I said. “Aunt Mary says to the parents of a greedy little boy, ‘How could it be wrong to give my poor nephew a fifth piece of chocolate cake? See how he’s crying for it?'”

“I’ve got an aunt like that,” the girl replied. Several people laughed. A couple of eyes opened.

“But what does that have to do with relationships?” called a green-eyed girl standing at the side of the room.

“Lots,” I answered. “False compassion may lead friends to approve of things that aren’t right. Or to take sides in conflicts that are none of their business. Or to remain with bad companions. Sometimes it leads someone to take the responsibility to ‘make’ someone else good. A common kind of false compassion is when a guy or a girl falls for a girl or a guy who’s guaranteed bad news. Then there’s the kind of false compassion that leads you to give ‘help’ that doesn’t help but only makes you feel better. When you indulge your compassionate feelings at the expense of someone else, that’s false compassion, too.”

To my surprise, at each of these examples a hand or a pair of hands went up. By the time I finished, a little grove of hands was waving, and everyone seemed to be awake. Marcy looked more hopeful.

“Not so fast,” said a guy with glasses that made his eyes look like dots. “Could you go over those one at a time?”

“I would if I could remember them,” I said.

“Start with the one about falling for wrecked guys,” called out the green-eyed young woman. “Lots of girls would like to hear about that one.”

“Speak for yourself,” called another girl with a grin.

“Hey! Hey! Who are you calling wrecked?” boomed a red-haired guy who reminded me of one of my old college roommates. A ripple of laughter passed among the women in the room, with an answering snicker from the men.

“I see it like this,” I said. “Romantic attraction rarely operates by itself. Usually it teams up with other feelings, perhaps unrecognized, and these unrecognized feelings often determine who it is that you’re attracted to. Quite a few men and women find themselves attracted mainly to people who are broken in some way. This can happen for many reasons. One is that you’re broken yourself and desperate for someone to love you. But another is plain old sympathy — sympathy draws us to people, too, and the sympathetic ‘draw’ and erotic ‘draw’ get mixed up together. The upshot is that you fall in love with someone precisely because the person is bad to fall in love with.”

Now everyone was paying attention. “So what should you do if you do have that tendency?” asked the guy with strong glasses. “Hypothetically,” he added. Laughter again.

“Two things,” I said, “One is about you, the other about — in your case, the girl.”

“In my hypothetical case,” he reminded me.

“In your hypothetical case,” I agreed. “As to the girl, don’t try to play therapist. I don’t mean you should hang her out to dry. Introduce her to Christian girls who have their heads screwed on right and whom you can count on to take her under their wing. As to yourself, don’t expect to get therapy from her. If you need to get straightened out, the best place to start is in an accountability group with your male Christian friends.”

“That’s the opposite of what most people do,” said Green Eyes.

“I know.”

“I used to pray with this guy who was a drug addict,” she went on. “And the next thing I knew, I’d fallen for him.”

“But my dad was a mess when my mom married him,” piped up the speak-for-yourself-girl. “And she got him fixed up.”

“I’m not saying it can’t ever work,” I said. “But I’m saying the odds are against it. And what you’ll usually find, if you know all the details, is that in those rare cases where it did seem to work, it almost didn’t work, worked less well than it would have worked if people weren’t trying to mix therapy with courtship, and caused a lot of misery in the meantime. Don’t do it! Date the kind of person you intend to marry. If you find yourself caring for someone who isn’t suitable, the best thing you can do for him is leave him in the hands of Christians of the same sex until he becomes suitable.”

“How about one of your other examples?” said the tall fellow who’d spoken first. “You said something about false compassion leading people to take sides.”

“Yes,” I said, “this one happens mostly among young women, and it has nothing to do with courtship. Most men don’t even learn about it until they have teenage daughters, but it continues right into the 20s and 30s. Here’s how it happens. Lulu and Marsha have a quarrel. Marsha telephones Susan and sobs out her tale of woe. Susan, full of compassion, sides with Marsha, thinking she’s being ‘supportive.’ But she hasn’t heard Lulu’s side of the story, and if Lulu had appealed to her first, she probably would have sided with Lulu — not because Lulu has the better case, but because she always sides with whoever appeals to her first. If you really want to ‘support’ your friends, don’t take sides in their quarrels at all. Instead, stay on good terms with both — not easy, I know — and encourage them to patch things up.”

The red-haired guy broke in. “Taking sides — is that what you meant about false compassion leading people to approve of things that aren’t right?”

“No,” I said. “There I had something else in mind. Sam and Jock are buddies. Jock is sleeping with his girlfriend. He knows he shouldn’t, but he does anyway. She gets pregnant. Jock is afraid and starts thinking about an abortion. He doesn’t mention it to his girlfriend yet, because he knows abortion is wrong. Instead he talks to Sam. To be a real friend, Sam ought to tell Jock, ‘You know you can’t do that. Be a stand-up guy. Take care of her. Do the right thing.’ Instead, he tries to ‘support’ Jock by saying, ‘I know what you’re going through, man. Do what you gotta do.’ Unfortunately, that’s not true support. It’s false compassion. True support is helping your friend be a better man.”

“Is that false compassion or false loyalty?” called a guy in the back who looked like a Marine.

“With men,” I said, “false loyalty is one of the …”

“Time!” cried Marcy. Her worried look was gone; in fact, she was beaming. “Sorry, but the Q and A has got to stop. Professor Theophilus, lots of people still have questions. Would you come back and speak with us again?”

Like I said, sometimes after you’ve addressed a group, the questions aren’t about what you’ve talked about — but that’s not necessarily bad. It may give you a clue about what you should have talked about.

Copyright 2001 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

J. Budziszewski

Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.

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