Recently I heard someone say that what is needed in the world today is more compassion. This person even went so far as to say that people have forgotten how to be compassionate. What is it about compassion that is so difficult? In her book Boundless Compassion, Joyce Rupp says that “Living compassionately is rarely convenient and downright challenging.” As I reflect on this, I wonder if practicing compassion has become underrated.
When we hear the word compassion, we might think it’s just about being nice. But according to Rupp, there is more to the story of being compassionate. First of all, she lists three necessary aspects of compassion: awareness, attitude, and action. Awareness is about being perceptive to the suffering of those around us. Attitude is about wanting to alleviate the suffering of those around us. Action leads us to do something about the suffering we observe. Sounds a lot like the work being done at Prairie View.
Working in a mental health facility tends to alert us to the suffering of those around us. But I was reminded one day that being aware can happen even if people are not physically present. A client shared with me that she lays her hands on pictures of people that she cares about and prays for them even though they are not there. What a wonderful way to be aware of others.
Our attitudes can change so quickly within minutes when we make judgments about others. Rupp shares the story of a woman who was sitting on the street corner waiting for the light to turn. She noticed a man who wore dirty clothes and was covered with tattoos. Her immediate judgment led her to think negative thoughts about him. Just then a car came barreling down the street running a red light. The woman noticed that this man, whom she had negatively judged, grabbed a blind woman who was trying to cross the street and saved her life from the speeding car. Attitudes can cloud our judgment if we only look on the outside.
Actions can begin by working on our own negative thoughts and judgments. Have you ever let one disturbing incident ruin your whole day? Once we work through our negative attitudes, we can take action to alleviate the suffering we see in others. We can have compassion for ourselves? Rupp explains that compassion for ourselves is absolutely necessary before we can show compassion to others. She reminds us that behind every story there is a scar. Perhaps we can be compassionate with ourselves by finding healing for our own scars.
The Scripture passage that Rupp uses which models this approach is found in the gospel of Luke (7:11-17) as Jesus addresses the widow of Nain. He becomes aware of her suffering as she grieves the death of her son. With compassion, he says, “Do not weep.” He recognizes someone experiencing sorrow and loss. This leads to a desire (attitude) to end her suffering. Then, through loving-kindness, Jesus acts by raising her son back to life.
Perhaps all of us desire happiness at some level. We all know the fear and pain of non-acceptance. Therein lies “the treasure of our oneness.” We all have the capacity to share compassion with one another.
Karen Andres is the chaplain at Prairie View. She is an ordained pastor with the Mennonite Church.