Compassion can be defined as seeing a person(s) in need and finding a way to help them. It was one of the essential characteristics of Jesus during His ministry on earth and has been a mark of the Christian faith going forward.
I learned and observed compassion from my family. My great-grandmother had nearly one hundred foster children come through her home. One became mayor of the town some years later. Grandma took in and adopted a boy that was abandoned on her doorstep by his mother. She was also known as the “bread lady.” On Saturdays she purchased all the bread she could squeeze into her car and distributed it among the poor. My mother fostered teenage girls and it was not unusual to come home from school to find a man sitting on our front porch eating a meal my mother had prepared. Dad was known as the “candy man” at the large orphanage at the edge of town where he regularly visited and distributed treats to the waiting hands of children in residence there. My father also hired men who were too proud to ask for a handout, but needed help. He paid them more than the job was worth, thus preserving their dignity and helping them get through a rough patch. My first opportunity to help someone in need without prompting or assistance from an adult was in fifth grade. That year our local school district began the effort to integrate physically challenged, but mentally capable children into a regular classroom. I eagerly volunteered to help one of the guys during recess by pushing him in his wheelchair out on the playground. It was a rewarding experience.
Coming from a family like mine, compassion can become an obligation of tradition to which one might have no personal connection. But, I have discovered there is another teacher of compassion beyond our family of origin – life experience. There are some who may become bitter, cynical, crass, and hardened as a result of the vicissitudes of life, but for many of us it softens our edges and makes us more thoughtful and tolerant of others. Here are three lessons in compassion I have learned along this pilgrim pathway.
- It is easy to hold dogmatic positions until it happens to you or someone near you.
I believe in absolutes, but my list of always right and always wrong has become much more narrowly defined. You have the luxury of a long list of unbendable rules until life happens. It is quite simple to question the genuine faith of a person who does not attend Sunday school, Sunday night, or mid-week church services until you live in a community where those choices are severely limited or unavailable altogether, not to mention the obstacles of poor physical or mental health, familial obligations, or other hindrances.
A theology of the family can be rigid until you or a loved one goes through a divorce. It is only then that some of the idealism must give way to realism. You still do not deny the way it ought to be, but you find yourself learning to live with the way it is.
While teaching a college level Old Testament course, the subject of capital punishment came up for discussion. One young man was adamant that everyone who murders another person should be put to death. Several times I tried to guide him toward a more nuanced position, but he grew all the more vociferous and dogmatic with each effort. At last I closed the subject. Several hours later he sought me out and profusely apologized for his words. I thanked him and expressed appreciation for his demonstration of sorrow. Did my argument persuade him to make such a sudden change? No. It was being made aware of my experience that caused a rethinking of his position. You see, at that time I had a close relative awaiting trial for murder.
- It is easy to judge others until you become the one being judged.
“Alcoholics and addicts are that way because they choose to be that way.” “Why don’t homeless people get a job?” Or, “Why don’t poor people just get a better job?” Here’s a classic, “Mental illness is all in your head.”
How quickly we judge what we do not understand. I am ashamed to confess that I was critical of twelve-step programs without having read the twelve steps. Only when I started going into jails, hang-outs, under bridges and cliffs, and into the hovels and shelters people called home did I realize what a devastating illness this disease of addiction was. Some had lost everything – property, family, job, freedom – and still could not quit. The physical and mental chains were so interwoven throughout the critical mass of mind and body that to stop instantly meant certain death or such anguished and intolerable mental pain as to drive one mad.
Homelessness and under-employment have a myriad of causes. Five different times in my life I have been homeless for various reasons. After I got out of jail no one would give me a job or a place to live. I called a place in San Antonio that advertised they could get a place to live for anyone with a record. When all was said and done the kind lady told me, “There is nothing I can do with nine misdemeanors.” Is it any wonder that people commit another crime just to get back into prison? They need a place to live. At least they know there they will have three hots and a cot. On the outside there are a thousand obstacles and even more uncertainties.
- It is easy to have answers for others’ problems until you become the one doing the questioning.
“Why did it have to happen to me?” That question makes a religious leader, physician, or counselor tremble. Many times there are no fixed answers or ready solutions. Sometimes situations do not present themselves as right or wrong, good or bad. Often the choice is between good, better, and best or bad, worse, and intolerable. You learn to trust God, believe in yourself, and allow others to help you make an informed decision with the options before you.
As a seventeen year old college freshman in Cincinnati, Ohio I saw my first prostitute standing on a street corner. At that time I judged her prospects slim-to-none for finding a paying john because of her large size. Today, I would look at that same woman braving the cold winter with a barely there short skirt and four-inch spiked heels and wonder what drove her to such desperation and compelled her to sell her dignity and risk her safety for a pittance of what she is truly worth. Today, I would listen to her story and try to help her find a way out if given the opportunity. Today, this old fat man would choose compassion learned through the sometimes hard experiences of life.