Can Compassion Become Toxic? The Merits of Not Rushing In

While I have written about a variety of issues here, I’ve not yet tackled the subject of how to help the immigrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker that we may come in contact with.  The term “bleeding heart liberal’ is often used  by some with derision  , and while we know that good intentions are, well, good, what about action?  We know that  intentions alone are not enough.  So how does one help the immigrant and/or refugee?

Bleeding Heart

According to my friend and mentor Ramzi,  a man who knows more about all aspects of immigration than anyone I know, said that a good place to start might be to ask them what it is they actually need.  And the answer  they are likely to give may surprise you.


In March I took 24 brilliant and compassionate students to Sicily. I admit to feeling a bit of  trepidation.  This was my life, my intellectual and emotional interest, the place where I spend an inordinate amount of time researching , interviewing, studying.   I kept asking myself how best to  get across not just the abundance of information I needed to give them to provide the proper context, but how would they interact with the refugees, some of which had become my friends. What would they think?  How would they process what they found My class was focused on immigration and migration in the Sicilian context.   I spent 6 weeks before we left the country for Sicily, where, amongst other activities  we would be meeting and interacting with refugees.  I made a conscious and intentional decision that while I would give them as much concrete information possible, that what I was really after for them was “experiential” and “reflective”.  And I leaned more toward the activist/human element.

Hand in Hand

One among many refugees  that I have come in contact and interveiwed has become a very very  good friend.  I would say this man is like my family.   There is nothing that the two of us cannot say to one another.   We are both glad the other exists in the world. During each class I would tell my students stories about my friend, his life , his struggles.   If they were eager to meet him, I honestly could not tell, but I assumed they were curious.

In Sicily, my friend came to speak to my class with a friend of his, a fellow refugee.  They told their stories, my friend, first.  He is an elegant man, educated. He knows how to frame his story so that his sufferings and his trials can be related to by others.  He neither wants nor seeks pity.  He understands that his struggle is not just his struggle alone.  That the structure of things, overall, must change in order to combat the racism and  exploitation that many immigrants and refugees encounter with alarming regularity not just in Italy, but in the European Union at large.

Students were overwhelmed. They listened with quiet and respect.  I saw tears.  I saw looks of disbelief.  What they saw, two handsome, strong and articulate men who were suffering in a variety of ways, probably did not compute immediately.  In one class I had talked about our “first world” concerns—there are so many—-and how they do not come close, and in fact seem utterly ridiculous in comparison with the rest of the world’s problems.   I knew they had to process.  I knew they would be writing in their required journals—their laboratories where they would record everything.  And write they did. What happened next was something that I was not prepared for: they were overcome with compassion and concern.  To say I was proud of them was putting it mildly.  But I knew that that was just the first wind of knowledge that hits heart before brain.  By the time they would pick themselves up from the floor, they would need to process further.

After all, what do you do  with a heart full of compassion?

It is a hard lesson to sit with the knowledge that we have of a situation before we act.  We live in a fast-paced world where a contemplative lifestyle is not respected in this bottom line world.  We are taught, in fact, encouraged to be people of action versus inaction.  But , in fact, there are times, there are definitely  situations most of all when they relate to the wellbeing of human beings, when it is prudent to press the  “pause” button.  To be circumspect.  To question yourself and try to discern that  if you want to help, how can you do it in a way that preserves the dignity of the person you want to reach out to?

In the education department of my university, a professor has a poster which says “Presume Competence” hanging on her office door.  I love that.  While this poster refers to those mainly with physical handicaps, warning others not to rush in until the signal is given that help , is indeed, required, I can apply it to this situation , too.  Has someone asked for you help?  If you rush in with all manner of  assistance or what you think will be helpful, lifesaving or  life changing, how will you feel if it is rejected?  Not appreciated as much as you thought?

At a church in Sicily, I and one of my students spoke with a refugee who told us how monotonous nearly every  day is for him: “I walk around outside.  Sometimes I go out for some pizza.  Then I come back.  Nothing.”  I asked him if he needed money.  I am sure he did , but that was the least of his worries.  They were taking care of him at the church. What he needed was hard to find: a job.  Finally he laughed, not without irony and just a touch of bitterness and said , “Really, what would I do with money?

My students have huge hearts.  They want to help my friend.  They would like to bring him here.   But I want to tell them, good intentions are wonderful, but dignity is too.  Today I told one of my students, one of the brightest most enthusiastic among them not to “rush in.” Not to ,in any way, get his hopes up, not to presume we know what he wants.  In fact, he cannot come here for many reasons.

I told her what my mentor/friend Ramzi told me:  That no one should underestimate this man’s capacity for survival. That we should keep things light and normal with him.  That to cast him in the role of “poor thing” threatens to rob him of the dignity he has. He is a beautiful person inside and out.  He is a person, not our cause.

We must presume competence.  Even the best of our intentions can become toxic to the person we are trying to help.

What did Ramzi advise we give my friend in abundance?  Friendship.  That is what he really wants.  He wants normalcy in his life.  He wants to talk about everything and nothing at all,  just like the rest of us do nearly every day.  I know my students will hold him up with their friendship. They are like that.

I called my friend  today.  I went outside of my office into the bright and warm day where students were milling around enjoying themselves in the carefree way students often do. I was conscious of how very far away he was.  I held my cellphone close .  I wanted to hear his voice loud and clear.

At the end of our conversation he said:

Thanks too much Micke, your smile is  always  inside me. . . there is  hope in my life and when I  go through your words , really,  I  find my self free to fly around…

bird with heart

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