The Cost of Compassion: Why It Feels Bad to Do Good

For awhile, I’ve wanted to write a book about compassionate living. It stems from my experience with missions, traveling the world, and with the homeless community in Nashville.

The problem is that there are too many books and blogs about compassion and not enough people living it. That needs to change. Because what most well-meaning authors and speakers don’t tell you is this:

It feels bad to do good

You never hear that at church or read it just below the “DONATE” button on a nonprofit website. But it’s true. Just ask anyone who’s done relief work or aid in the developing world. Talk to the staff at your local homeless shelter.

This compassion stuff ain’t nice and tidy. It’s horribly messy.

This is an essential lesson for anyone wanting to live a better story. A story worth telling is full of conflict. If you want to live more compassionately, pain is inevitable.

The Cost of Compassion
Photo credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)

What compassion costs

Did you know that the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”?

If you’re trying to serve someone who is hurting and it doesn’t hurt you in the process, you’re doing it wrong.

The cost of compassion isn’t money. It’s comfort.

I know this, because I’ve lived it. And I know others who have, too. When you hold in your arms a baby dying of AIDS or put a pair of shoes on someone’s bare feet, it doesn’t make you feel good. It hurts.

If you’re being truly compassionate, your heart breaks for all the needs that you’re not meeting in that moment.

When we can get in touch with this part of our hearts, we begin to truly come alive — to tap into that part of ourselves that has grown numb to the pain all around us. We begin to be restorers and redeemers of a broken world.

Your choice

You don’t have to care about this; I’m not asking you to do that. That’s your choice. But if you do, or even if you want to care, I hope you do something about it.

Because it takes more than a broken heart to heal the world.

Of course, I hope you allow your heart to be broken, for your soul to be wrecked by a need you can’t possibly meet on your own. But I hope you are transformed beyond feeling mere pity. I hope it hurts more than you know or understand.

This is what it feels like to do good. It hurts. Real bad.

When someone tells me the only reason to help the less-fortunate is so that you can feel better about yourself, I laugh. They obviously have never lived amongst the poor, the destitute, the heart-broken.

This idea that philanthropy is self-medication is just not true. Not if you’re really helping. Not if you’re with those who are suffering. You can’t help but hurt a little, too.

And that’s the whole point.

How to know if you’re living compassionately

This is a good litmus test for those of aspiring to make a difference: Do we feel good about what we’re doing? Or does it hurt a little? Maybe even a lot?

If so, then you’re on the right track.

This is not Disneyworld. It’s the real world. This is life — real and raw and gritty.

If you are going to change something, you are going to have to enter into the pain.

The only escape is to live only for yourself.

“Love hurts, but sometimes it’s a good hurt,
 and it feels like I’m alive.”

To read more a personal experience with this (including my own wrestling with skeptical, selfish thoughts) read this piece I wrote for Reject Apathy: “Embracing Raw Community.”

Oh, and that book I talked about? I just might write it. Like, real soon…

Have is it ever felt bad for you to do good? Share your experience in the comments.

*Photo appears courtesy of Lachlan Hardy (Creative Commons)