Whenever I teach a class or course on counselling or people-helping, I would inevitably be drawn to the importance of compassion and not just competence. And after numerous sessions of listening to and counselling people which I can end up doing so in a somewhat routine, standardized skilled-based manner with the typical questions and gestures, I reckon the need to recover the basis for why I am in a people-helping ‘business.’
What motivates and spurs me to reach out to others has to come from within. I recall that which drove Jesus to do so: When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36). Compassion is an essential quality I strongly advocate and try to embrace for myself when called upon or seeking to help others.
Below are some salient thoughts I have adapted and drawn from Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill & Douglas Morrison’s book on Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (1983, Image Books).
Compassion: Its Meaning
The word compassion generally evokes positive feelings as it describes people who are good, gentle and understanding. It is derived from the Latin words, pati and cum, which together mean “to suffer with.” Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, and to share in people’s brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.
We assume that compassion is a natural response to human suffering. Who would not feel compassion for a poor old man, a hungry child, a widow or single parent, a paralyzed person or a lost and fearful child? If we don’t, we might be accused of being uncompassionate or inhumane. Thus, we often identify being compassionate as being human.
But if being compassionate and being human are the same, why then is humanity torn by conflict and hatred? Why are there so many people suffering from hunger, oppression and discrimination? Why do differences in race, education or sex prevent us from forming communities of love? Why are millions of human beings suffering from alienation and loneliness?
Compassion: Its Menace
The honest answer is because compassion is neither our central concern nor our primary stance in life. What we really desire is to make it in life, to get ahead, to be first, to be different. We want to forge our identities by carving out for ourselves niches in life where we can maintain a safe distance from others. In other words, our primary frame of reference is competition, not compassion.
Underlying competition, is of course, covetousness or selfishness. I reckon most of us are too full of ourselves and our needs, and too preoccupied with our own plans and activities. Even our activities on behalf of others can often reflect our own need for recognition or fulfillment!
An ally of competition and covetousness is criticalness. We are good at criticizing others and even better at advice-giving. We assume that we know what is best for others, particularly the less educated and more unfortunate members of our society. But we are not so good at compassionate participation, at entering into their places of pain. As defined, compassion calls us to suffer with those who are suffering, to be weak with the weak, vulnerable to the vulnerable. And this is by no means easy.
What seems to be a natural human virtue proves to be much less so than we thought. Where does this leave us? To none other than looking at the God of compassion and embracing it as the basis and source of our compassion.
Compassion: Its Source & Sustenance
God’s compassion is made visible in the life of Christ. As noted, when Jesus saw the crowd harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd, he felt compassion for them (Matt 9:36). When he saw the blind, the paralyzed, and the deaf being brought to him, he felt compassion in his heart (Matt 14:14). When he noticed the thousands, who had followed him for days were tired and hungry, he said, “I am moved with compassion” (Mark 8:2).
Thus, our services of care should not just spring from need, neither from duty. Rather, love should motivate us, for service is ultimately giving love away. But for love to be nurtured and nourished, it must come from above.
Compassion: Being Sensitive & Starting Small
Seeking to express compassion to others is not easy; it may be fraught with difficulties and fears. We are frequently unsure whether we can be really helpful or whether the person really wants our help. We are also uncertain as to what might be most helpful and beneficial. And we never fully understand all that may be involved in a person’s needs and struggles.
Yet difficult and complicated as it may be, we must not be paralyzed into inactivity. This is not to say that we should rush in with our good intentions which might be wide of the mark. Careful listening and sensitivity are always called for. But the important thing is that we start where we can and respond to what is at hand.
Jesus touched the lowly places by washing the disciples’ feet. The little boy gave his five loaves and two fishes. Our simple starts, whatever it may be, like writing an encouragement card or giving someone a lift, might possibly lead to new opportunities and further ways of caring for the other person. It takes time to build bridges of trust and openness. It takes time to come to a place where we can care for another more meaningfully.
God calls on us to be a more compassionate people. He is a compassionate God. Ours is to be compassionate way of life.