Of mind & body

Building Happiness: Charlie Sheen and the Value of Compassion

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English: Charlie Sheen in March 2009.
English: Charlie Sheen in March 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know Charlie Sheen.

Not literally of course (except a small black kitten) but in the years I’ve worked in direct care as a social worker, I’ve met dozens of guys just like him, except with less money and fame. (Charlie would disagree, because he’s amazing and special and different– but so was every guy I worked with in the same reported stage of disease). And for the purposes of this essay, Charlie is being used as a public example of an archetype, not as an individual because of course I don’t know him, in that sense.

Charlie is imploding in plain view of the rest of the world*, and while it’s painful to watch, we often find that even when we cover our eyes we peek through our fingers. We look at him, shake our heads collectively, condemn him, and crack jokes at his expense, because to honestly own that we’re watching someone go to a very dark place feels too hard.

Compassion is one of the most difficult and important emotions to cultivate.

We’d like to believe that wealth and fame immunize us from unhappiness and trouble, but we know that’s not the case. Charlie’s reported addiction looks just like the addiction of the crack addict standing by the freeway exit begging coins for his next fix, except with better furniture, and more people enabling him. (I should note here that I am not diagnosing Mr. Sheen. I am simply using his reported behavior as an illustration of the less visible behavior of average addicts)

If I were to meet Mr. Sheen in person, I would probably not like him much. His public persona is conceited and rude and shallow, and I doubt that privately he is much different, especially considering that he has reportedly physically abused all three of his wives an at least one girlfriend. However, I have a great deal of compassion for Charlie Sheen**. Even viewed from a thousand miles away, through the lens of the press and publicity agents, Charlie’s life is chaotic and his relationships are full of conflict. Despite his bravado, Charlie is evidently not a happy man. He appears to be an angry, bitter, confused man who is desperately trying to keep his head above water.

What value does my compassion for Charlie Sheen have? None– for him. At this point, he’s unwilling to acknowledge (at least publicly) that he has a problem. Some random stranger with a blog “feeling sorry for him” is unlikely to impress him one way or another. Even if he were at a stage where he was beginning to realize that maybe he needs to change something in his life, the random stranger thing still applies.

The value of compassion for others to myself is enormous, though. When I watch someone, whether someone I know personally, professionally, or only through reputation, have difficulties in their life and I step into their shoes, I gain layers of perspective.

I can stretch my own ability to connect to other people, by imagining myself in their situation, and how I would feel. I can simultaneously imagine myself as anyone involved in the situation. I gain multiple views of the world, and multiple understandings of the different situations that human beings find themselves in.

If I react to other people in anger, or with fear or ridicule, I have cut myself off from the humanity of that person. If I am deep in conflict with that other person, sometimes it is essential to cut myself off — but with the safety of distance or the ability to get respite from another person’s difficulties, allowing myself to fully feel their humanity helps me to exercise my own.***

Exercising an emotion builds “muscle”. It becomes easier to access an emotion the more I use it. The hardest person in the world to forgive is the one in the mirror. When I need it (and I do), I have exercised compassion enough to apply it to my own mistakes. When I’ve done something really stupid, or thoughtless, or even “unforgivable”, I can reach into that well I’ve dug with my hard emotional work, and draw up a long drink of compassion to get me through.

So when I watch Mr. Sheen or another celebrity having public difficulties, I try not to point and laugh, but instead remind myself (and others, when I have time and energy) of how difficult similar situations are for ourselves and those we love. I try to keep my heart open. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes I point and laugh, or curse and condemn, with the best of them. But I like myself better when I try not to.

I have never had to go through private issues with a large swath of the world watching each move waiting (hoping?) for the next misstep, but I can imagine what it would feel like, and that helps fuel my compassion.

*The latest news, as of this morning, is that Charlie has lost custody of his twin sons.  While that is probably best for all involved, it must be devastating for him.

** Let me clarify that I feel deep compassion for those directly impacted by Mr. Sheen’s behavior, including his family, friends and co-workers.  I also am disgusted and angered by Mr. Sheen’s publicly reported behavior. That doesn’t negate or diminish the compassion I feel for Mr. Sheen.
His troubles did not appear full blown in a vacuum.  Like those of us who live private lives, events pile on events throughout the lives of people who live in the public eye, and culminate in issues that they either handle well, or don’t.

***I don’t subscribe to the view that people who hurt others can’t change.  I do believe that they can only change through long, sustained effort and a massive shift in thinking–  but I have seen it happen, more than once, so despite the fact that I find violent behavior repugnant and sometimes even evil, I am unwilling to write off any living human being.
This is also one reason I oppose the death penalty. For his sake, and the sake of those whose lives he touches directly, I certainly hope Charlie Sheen does the extremely hard work of getting well and making amends, even if the only person who ever forgives him is himself.

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