Essays False and Real Virtues

A couple of years ago it struck me that several of my attitudes that I considered to be virtues, were really not virtues at all. For example, compassion, for me, carried a sense of hopelessness and loss, so that when I felt compassion for someone, it became a burden to both of us (unless they were mercifully unaware of my concern.) And yet I knew that compassion toward others, toward all sentient beings, was essential to Buddhist practice (as well as that of other religions.) This became a puzzle that occupied me until I suddenly recognized the role that projection played in my feelings of compassion.

The root of my feelings was not genuine empathy but rather identification: I saw my own sufferings in others, and, under the guise of compassion, offered them the concern that I wished had been offered to me. This discovery certainly left me feeling ginger about identifying any of my actions as helpful and beneficial. But it was also a relief to find that the pain of being compassionate was not essential to it but rather resulted from my own misunderstanding. This created two new questions: which other good qualities can be infested with similar projections, and how to discover these sham virtues and change them into something real.

With this dynamic of substitution clear, I came up with this list:
Projected suffering  mimics    compassion;
emotional numbness    mimics    detachment;
lack of self esteem  mimics    humility and ego dissolution;
projected fear   mimics    pacifism and non-violence.

Whenever I act from these apparent virtues, the results nevertheless manifest the real motivation behind my actions. So these actions are far less effective in benefitting myself or others than if I were moved by the real qualities. Another outcome is confusion: I wonder why, since I have done something evidently good, I feel so out of harmony; and the beneficiaries of my actions (if there are such) probably feel put upon and diminished by my good deed, and angry that they are now obligated to me.

So - what to do? I can't see any quick fix - any easy and reliable trick to unmask fraudulent virtues. The real answer seems to depend in part on the old standbys recommended by all spiritual traditions: awareness and self-examination, and a deeply serious determination to come to know oneself, with all the difficult work that implies. In another part it rests on an important rule of thumb: that really good actions will bring good results. Therefore, if some act leaves everyone concerned feeling uncomfortable, something is probably wrong.
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[Updated 11/21/01 ]