Compassion is a notion that all the great religions promote, especially in the context of the God of compassion. Yet, in the world, be it politics, sports or economics, competition is the dominant mode of relating among people. Among insecure, anxious and vulnerable beings that we as mortal humans are, competition offers satisfaction and winning is what appears most desirable. In contrast, Jesus teaches us to be compassionate – to “suffer with” one another. This will lead us to the truth that we are most ourselves, not when we differ from others, but when we see things in common. It is serving one another that makes us most human, and confessing to be just like others that leads to healing and reconciliation. Compassion – being with others when they suffer and willingly entering into a fellowship of the weak – is God’s way to justice and peace among people. This becomes possible only when we realize and accept by faith that we don’t have to compete for love, but rather that love is freely given to us by the One who calls us to compassion.
Jesus shows us the way to compassion by his life. He speaks and lives as the Beloved of God. This is the rock on which his compassionate ministry is built. It is also the key to his resisting Satan’s temptations in the wilderness trying to seduce him into becoming a competitor for love (Matthew 4:1-11). People in the world compete for love by doing something useful, sensational or powerful. Yet Jesus is clear in his response. Being the beloved and favoured of God, he doesn’t have to prove he is worthy of love. Having gained victory over the tempter, Jesus was free to pursue compassionate life.
In a sense, the compassionate life is a life of downward mobility – something the world considers unwise, unhealthy and even stupid. Yet the call to upward mobility is absent from the gospels. Rather, Jesus exhorts to humility, service and becoming childlike (though not childish) – see Matthew 18:3; 20:25-28. The way of downward mobility is the descending way of Jesus – the way towards the poor, suffering, marginal, lonely, homeless, in other words all those who ask for compassion. They can’t offer success, popularity or power, but instead the joy and peace of the children of God.
Sharing in the pain of those who suffer doesn’t seem like a way to joy, yet people like Francis of Assisi, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer and others who followed this way of life radiated joy largely unknown in the world. The joy that compassion brings is a secret only few have discovered it and each person needs to discover it for themselves. While most people look for joy in success, popularity and power, where it is not always found, every time we return to a situation of pain, we get a new glimpse of joy that is not of this world.
Compassion – a downward movement towards solidarity instead of an upward movement towards popularity – doesn’t require a heroic change of life. Rather, the compassionate life is mostly hidden in the ordinariness of everyday living and practiced through small gestures in everyday life. If we are open to the many aspects of suffering of those with whom we share our life, we’ll see opportunities for practicing compassion right where we are. It may be spending time with the lonely person who seems unattractive to others, encouraging an insecure teenager, or befriending a gay person who feels isolated from family and friends. It is the small gestures in ordinary life that add up to true compassion.
Compassion is different from pity. Sometimes we show pity by giving a beggar some money. However, this often excludes any personal attention. Compassion means becoming close to the one who suffers and suffering with them, which in turn means that we ourselves must be willing to become vulnerable. We need to identify with the other person in their humanness, brokenness and fragility. We can be with the other only when he or she becomes like us. The suffering individual calls us to become aware of our own suffering. To do that, we need to be in touch with our own experiences, such as loneliness, handicaps or poverty. The greatest comfort and consolation a suffering person can receive is when they can share their grief with another person. While the other cannot take their pain away or provide solutions to their problems, just being there no matter what is of great help. This indeed is the true gift of compassion.
Sometimes just the silent presence of a friend is all that is needed – simply sharing the other person’s suffering without saying anything or feeling that something needs to be said. A committed presence even in the face of emotional outbursts and a comforting touch can be of immeasurable help and consolation.
True compassionate life is characterised by a mutuality of giving and receiving. All who have served the poor, sick or disadvantaged have found that in giving, they have received as much or more than they have sacrificed. The love and other intangibles that the underprivileged give surpasses the physical help that they have received from those that assist them.
Sometimes a life of compassion offers a gift we are not eager to receive – the gift of self-confrontation. Those of us coming from a Western background may become aware of our impatience or the need for efficiency and control. Fear of rejection, hunger for affirmation, and the inability to form a close personal relationship may also surface, together with other shortcomings.
Compassion is more than sympathy or empathy and it is humanly impossible for our heart to remain open to all people at all times. Of and by ourselves, we soon reach an emotional limit – with so much “news” about human misery, our hearts become numb because of overload. But God’s compassionate heart is limitless – it is infinitely greater than the human heart. Through the Holy Spirit (Psalm 51), God gives us a heart so that we can love all people without burning out or becoming numb. We can then become participants in God’s compassion to all around us.
Reference: The above series of reflections is based on Henri Nouwen’s book, Here and Now, Living in the Spirit (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 1994), 85-96.
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