When I was young I discovered a chrysalis hanging from a branch in some scrub oak near our house. Each day after this discovery I would go out and check on this chrysalis in the hopes of seeing the butterfly that I knew was inside. You can imagine how excited I was when one day I came out to find the head of this butterfly sticking out from a hole in the bottom of the cocoon!
I stood fascinated by the whole process, but wait… something was wrong. The butterfly seemed to struggle and not be getting anywhere. I decided to help. Very carefully I began to pull the silk from around the butterfly until I had a hole big enough to tear the cocoon open. With a "plop" the butterfly hit the ground. It wasn't the magnificent flying creature I had envisioned. Its wings were rolled up tight and it eventually died. I couldn't believe what had just happened. Instead of being a witness to the wonder of the butterfly's flight, I was the cause of its death.
Had I known then what I know now about compassionate detachment, that butterfly would have lived to fulfill its life's mission. I learned much later in life that the struggle I had witnessed was actually necessary for the butterfly to live. The effort to get out of the cocoon causes fluid to be pumped into the wings and without that fluid the butterfly can't unroll. By stepping in and interfering with this process I didn't allow the butterfly to develop according to its nature. I prevented the struggle that was necessary to make it strong.
Compassionate detachment simply means we are not attached physically, spiritually, mentally and especially emotionally to the events, things, and people in our lives that we have compassion for. This does not mean we don't care - because compassion is caring. It means we are not attached in a way that fails to serve the highest good of all.
What exactly is the highest good? The truth is that most of the time we just don't know. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop us from trying to insert our wisdom and sometimes even insisting that people take our advice. However well intentioned I was when I was younger, I didn't know what was for the highest good of the butterfly and my interference and insistence cost that creature its life.
If it was difficult to watch the struggle of a butterfly, how difficult must it be to watch the struggle of a loved one?
What if it is your child? Suppose a child was born into a loving, yet very over-protective family. The parents, in their idea of love declared, "Our child will be protected from all of the evils of life. Kids will never make fun of him or tease him because we will never allow him out of the house. He will stay here where he is loved and protected. He will never have to be subjected to germs and pollutants nor will anything harmful every come into contact with him."
The mother would cook every meal for him throughout the rest of his life. He will never have to cook and risk being burned by a hot stove. The father said, "He will never have to work because he could be injured on the job and we would never want to see our child hurt." They agreed that since he would never have to work he would never have to go to school. "Why should we subject him to cruel and unkind people? Why should he have to exert all that effort to learn anyway? Plus the history books are full of stories of war, famine, slavery and other atrocities. It is better that he not have to hear such negative things."
They also agreed that he should never date or marry because how easy would it be for a girl to break his heart? "It is better to just keep him here with us where he is loved and protected," they said. They told him, "Don't run, don't jump, don't climb on things and stay out of all the rooms where there are dangerous things because we love you and don't want to see you get hurt. It's for your own good." …Okay, by now you are probably saying, "I get the point!" I give you this extreme and hypothetical situation to overstate that not all struggle or pain is bad.
There is a fine line between aiding someone - and carrying them in a way that robs them of the life lessons needed to make them strong and help them become capable of carrying out their life's mission. Each person comes into this world with his own load, for which he and he alone is responsible. Anyone who attempts to carry another's load (or shirk his own) is not serving anyone's highest good. In fact, that is a disservice and could stunt or prevent the growth necessary to carry them through their life's mission. Sometimes you have to love a person enough to let go. Let them learn their lessons.
When you let go of someone by being compassionately detached, you don't let go so they fall. You let go so they can fly!