Measuring our compassion

An idea that courses through virtually every spiritual tradition is compassion. provides this definition: “A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” As we work through the 12 Steps of OA, we begin to feel truly compassionate, perhaps for the first time, as our hearts and minds become aligned with our Higher Power.

Some of us have simply been too self-centered to feel compassion. We may feel a distance from suffering and shut our minds to it, or we may dismiss it because we are not, ourselves, in the moment, experiencing the same suffering as another person is. If we are people pleasers, we may think we brim with compassion, but do we? What motives do we have in helping others? Is it possible that we seek the approval of others? Or that of the person suffering? Do we do help out of guilt or out of sympathy or empathy? Who are we really trying to help—ourselves or the other person?

When we get through the 12 Steps, we do not emerge as saintly peacemakers, and we certainly couldn’t keep it up even if we did. We are human beings, we are prone to the same pratfalls of ego, the same biases and stubbornness that any person has. Just because we are more reasonable than we were doesn’t mean we are entirely reasonable. We are works in progress, and compassion is a very good measuring stick for our spiritual condition.

See, the great thing about OA is that as we get better, we are learning how to help another person get better. We can measure our compassion by our willingness to help another addict. Judgment is the opposite of compassion, and through it we claim to ourselves that we are different than another person. Do we judge an OA member for how they work their program? For their size or the speed of their physical recovery? Do we judge them for talking about The Steps too much during meetings or for talking too much about personal problems? How often have we judged another person’s recovery by what they look like across the room from us—only to learn that they’ve already lost more weight in OA than we have to lose in the first place?

Our twelfth Step tells us that we must help others with our affliction, if we are to live long and happily. To do so, we must develop compassion by countermanding the judgments that appear in our heads. After all, the person we are judging is just like us!

Outside of OA, we have even more opportunity to measure our compassion. We need only look at the front page of the newspaper. Pick a tyrant, a political figure, a drunk driver, a shooter, a serial killer, a child abuser, or an animal abuser, anyone whose actions set your anger ablaze. Then ask yourself what terrible suffering must have led them to their present state. Ask what awful mental illness, cruel experience, or deprivation could lead a person to such hideous actions. Our recoveries do not depend on determining who is right or who is wrong; they depend on our willingness to be helpful to God and others. If the person you picked from the headlines asked you to help them stop eating compulsively would you?

When we close ourselves off from compassion, we judge. When we judge, though, aren’t we really trying to separate ourselves from what we are afraid of and from what we believe are the worst parts of ourselves? Anytime we point the finger at another, aren’t three of our fingers are pointing back at ourselves?

If we are to live and prosper in OA, we must help others. If we must help others, we can’t allow our mindless judgments to get in the way of our spiritual work and attitude. We must flip our judgments back over to compassion. We must remind ourselves that we are works in progress, and that God is turning our defects into assets daily. Otherwise, we’ll spend our time yelling at the radio or TV, complaining about those we love, and sitting in meetings wondering why everyone else seems more at ease than we are. Or else just eating.

Love and Tolerance Is Our Code

“Live and let live.” If everyone in the world applied this 12-step slogan throughout their daily lives, we’d all be a lot better off, addicts or not. But we addicts use this slogan for a reason. We find it helps us to avoid eating compulsively.

We OA members seek comfort in food or food behaviors. We want to avoid the painful feelings of our day. Sometimes what we see in a situation is real. Sometimes it’s a product of our thinking. In either event, our diseased minds use these situations to kill us by eating compulsively.

In the “Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book we are told that the cycle of addiction begins with feelings of restlessness, irritability, or discontent. In other words, with a thought or a feeling. This activates the obsession of the mind before we take the first bite. This means that our thinking and emotions are the trigger for our compulsive behaviors.

Enter “live and let live.” It is telling us that we should abandon our attachment to the people and events (current, previous, or future) who are triggering us. No matter what they’ve done to us, we’re the ones eating the poison we intended for them. If we simply let go of the situation, we have a shot at not taking that next compulsive bite, and at maintaining our abstinence because we have interrupted the cycle of obsession and craving.

This is true even when it is ourselves that we are angry at. We have to let ourselves off the hook as well. Are we not also people, deeply flawed in the way that all people are?

In its description of the tenth step, the Big Book has some very interesting things to say about this. First it tells us that when faced with the kinds of thoughts and feelings that lead to compulsive fooding, we should turn our thoughts to others and how we can be helpful to them. By doing so, we give our minds a break from whatever loop of anger, pride, fear, or self-pity it’s running, while putting a little spiritual deposit in the bank by doing right action. Right action, estimable acts, lead to self-esteem and connection with God, both of which are important to our recovery.

“Love and tolerance of others is our code,” the book also tells us. If we live and let live, if we love people despite their flaws, tolerate the same kind of utterly human behaviors that we commit, and seek compassion for them, we will be the ones who get the benefit. We will gain some softness in our heart, some insight into how we can help others, and some more bankable spiritual moments.

We often eat because we haven’t developed yet the capacity for tolerance, compassion, and love. It’s been said that while alcoholics stop growing emotionally in their teens, food addicts stop growing around age five. Our substance is freely available at an early age. That means that we may need the emotional growth suggested by the Big Book in a deeper way than even it had considered. Many faith traditions place heavy emphasis on either or both of good works and compassion. Doing for others and trying to walk a mile in their shoes makes us better, deeper people. We can feel for others instead of always making it about ourselves inside our heads. We can grow emotionally as we were meant to do.

What an idea! But also what a journey.

We won’t get there overnight. This is a lifelong process of prayer, meditation, spiritual action, listening to others, helping others, and having our own limitations in mind at all times so that we can avoid repeating the patterns that got us here. Love and tolerance will make us feel better and eat better. It will calm the pounding urge inside to eat, and it will give us a pause in which we can ask our Higher Power to help us before we do our usual, death-wish thing.

After all, we find in our inventory that God has loved and tolerated us. If God can do that for us with our flaws, why shouldn’t do the same for others?