By Tracy Simmons
Editor’s note: This is the first of many posts that will be published about compassion this week.
Compassion, Armstrong points out, is at the root of all religions.
We asked the SpokaneFAVS panelists about it.
How do you define compassion? What does your faith teach you about being compassionate?
I define compassion as a love that is felt in the soul and that motivates us to act on another’s behalf. It is a deep concern for another’s trial, misfortune or difficulty, accompanied by a sincere desire to help that is translated into action whenever possible. My faith teaches me compassion is It. It’s a big one, a quality that God the Father and his Son, Jesus, value in us most highly.
Matthew 22:36-40 tells us the first and greatest commandments are to love the Lord God and then to love our neighbors as ourselves. In Matthew 25 are some of my favorite scripture verses (though I admit, I have many favorites). Jesus tells us those who inherit his kingdom are those who feed the hungry, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and “come unto” the prisoners (I find it interesting that his concern isn’t for the unjustly imprisoned, it’s for all prisoners). He doesn’t tell us to feel bad for the hungry, sick, etc. He wants us to be the change in their lives. And most marvelous of all, anytime we do the tiniest act of service for each other, we are directly serving him and pleasing him — that is how much he loves us.
Compassion is a feeling for, and an understanding of the pain and suffering of another person, and a consequent effort to alleviate it. Without the effort to change the circumstances that cause the suffering, compassion is mere pity, so action is an important part of compassion. Compassion is thus what might be considered a “core” component of faith as I understand it. Nearly as a matter of definition, people without compassion are, essentially, sociopaths; they have no feel for or concern with anything or anyone that does not directly impact them; the only suffering they care about at all is their own. Thus, from a human point of view compassion is an essential aspect of the continued survival of humanity. A friend of mine once said if we run out of compassion before we run out of gunpowder we are all doomed. Even if that aphorism is not literally true, it gets to the point. Power, untempered by compassion, quickly becomes totalitarian and violent.
Theologically, in our tradition we view compassion as originating in God and flowing through humanity, not just Christians, by the way, but people in general. Where we see genuine compassion, there we see the work of God whether that compassion is being practiced by Christians or not.
Compassion, for me, is a part of understanding the relational aspect of my life with all people. We are all connected on this, in cosmic terms, on this very small planet we call earth and we are all responsible for each other in some way or another. That responsibility can be seen as compassion or love or whatever you think is appropriate. I know many people would argue the “responsible for others” point, citing privacy, personal responsibility, nationalism and patriotism and whatever other ism they can think of in order to avoid taking responsibility for the “least of these” in this world. Looking with compassion on our neighbors is what we are called to do and I can say that for Christians and many other world religions as well. Deep down we all know we have to take care of each other, especially as the world grows, community is only possible if everyone plays the game, those that can play the game more effectively need to help those that cannot. Setting up barriers and judging those who can’t play is not compassion and it’s not our job.
I think Zen Buddhist practice is based strongly in compassion. It arises naturally when you understand you are not separate from any other sentient being. One of my bodywork teachers said, “If you find yourself disliking a patient just stand for a moment by the massage table with their head gently held in your hands and imagine who they were as a newborn baby and what they went through in their life to make them who they are now. You will find yourself filled with compassion.” I also notice that I distance myself, or judge people and thus distance myself, when I have some fear or insecurity of them or the situation. I try to observe when I am turning away from someone and look inside myself for the reason, or at least observe the turning away and/or judgment of them; best not to judge myself either but just observe my reaction. Doing all that somehow dissipates the fear and the judgment and allows space for connection. This doesn’t mean one can’t be discerning. Because you have compassion for someone doesn’t mean you want to hang out with them. I think while fear and judgment have the upper hand there isn’t much room for compassion for oneself or others.
For me, compassion is when mercy and justice kiss in my life.
Compassion is, for me, more about deeds than words or sentiments. Compassion is to act in favor of whatever living being. A compassionate action does not depend on one’s moods. A person can be compassionate and be in a bad mood. One has to learn to be compassionate with oneself and with all other living beings. Compassion is always life-giving. Life can be given in tender as well as in rough ways. Surgery can be an act of compassion as well as a hug. Compassion is an act of courage or determination. It’s not just a natural feeling in us. Compassion is a divine attribute. Jesus’ words and deeds, as recorded in the gospels, embody divine compassion in a human way.
Or as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “It was essential that he (Jesus) should become completely like his brothers so that he could be a compassionate and trustworthy high priest of God’s religion, able to atone for human sins. That is, because he has himself been through temptation he is able to help others who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18).
When I think of compassion, I think of the difference between compassion and empathy. To me, compassion is when you reach out with your heart and think, “I feel bad that they feel bad.” Empathy is when you have been there yourself, and you feel bad for someone who is hurting because you really know what they are going through and can be there for them in a greater way because of it. I think it’s one of the greatest blessings, or silver linings of suffering, to be able to make the load easier for others because you can now empathize, and I think it’s selfish not to do so. I’ve often heard, for example, in articles about how to help a grieving person, that you should never ever say “I know how you feel.” Of course you shouldn’t make the conversation about you, but if you truly have had a very similar type of pain, I think it can be immensely valuable, when appropriate, to share, “I actually have been there, and I overcame it.” It offers hope and banishes the isolation pain can bring. I believe the greatest example of this is Jesus Christ and the atonement, and I’m grateful to have his paradigm to look to everyday in my life.
More than a lofty ideal for Christians to ponder, compassion is a gift. The word compassion literally means ‘suffer together.’ In the New Testament acts of compassion are acts of mercy. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, raised the dead, taught the crowds, reached out to untouchables. Compassion lets someone know, “You’re not alone.” My son had to have brain and skull surgery at age one to repair a missing portion of his skull and to remove part of a tumor. I felt completely helpless. My son lay in an operating room all day in a children’s hospital, hours from home. After the team of anesthesiologists took him from my arms early that morning, I was unsure what to do next. I wandered around the hospital in a state of shock. Eating was out of the question. Calling people took too much effort. Waiting sucked. Then I looked up. It took a moment to recognize the familiar face before me. It was our pastor at the time. He made a surprise trip to the hospital to be with my husband and me. He stayed by our sides the entire day until our son came through the surgery. The pastor taught me that sheer presence is the hallmark of compassion. No ideal, no words, no pomp. Just presence.