True compassion means not only feeling another's pain but also being moved to help relieve it. Dr. Daniel Goleman, author and psychologist
My five-year-old grandson, Eli, has a favorite book by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine entitled Who Is My Neighbor? Levine is a New Testament and Jewish studies professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
The children’s book is a story about the Blues and Yellows who don’t mix at all. The Blues and Yellows tell stories of warning to each other to keep themselves separated and distrustful. At one crucial point in the story, Midnight Blue has a bike crash and needs help. Despite her fear, a little Yellow stops to help Midnight Blue. The children’s book is a re-take of the New Testament parable told in the Gospel of Luke commonly called the story of The Good Samaritan. In fact, today we often call someone who stops to help a good Samaritan.
According to Levine, Jesus probably told this story to get people talking and thinking (not to teach a moral as is commonly thought). In this case it's about how we relate to strangers – people who are different. This story, like perhaps many parables, calls us to grapple with our beliefs and behaviors and to consider the obstacles we face to being better, more compassionate people.
A few days ago, I paused while reading the story of the blues and yellows and asked Eli if he would help someone who needed help.
No hesitation, “Uh, huh,” he responded.
“Would you stop to help someone who is…from India,” I asked.
Again, no hesitation. “Yes,” he said.
“How about a Russian?” Silence.
Then after a pause, he responded, “Well, no, not a Russian.”
Research shows that our greatest fulfillment comes in large part from being connected to others and from helping them.
Compassion brings meaning and researchers have found that living a life of meaning is one of the greatest determinants of happiness. Not only does compassion ensure depth, fulfillment and purpose in our lives, studies show that it has powerful health benefits and even leads to a longer life!
As I have previously mentioned in these posts, compassion often comes very naturally to us. We see suffering, we want to help, and we do. Sometimes, however, we get blocked. The common culprits are apathy, overwhelm, maybe some fear, but a lot of the time it’s about how we view the other, our judgments.
There are ways of overcoming these blocks to compassion. Often apathy (and fear) can be overcome by imagining what is going on for the person who is suffering. Even psychopaths have responded to this. It helps to find something in common. Overwhelm can be dealt with by focusing on connecting, understanding, and discerning what we have the resources to do.
The big blocker for many people is judgment. We may think some people are not worthy of our attention and help. Perhaps we have instantly judged them as lazy, mean, dangerous, or evil even though we don't even know them personally.
Perhaps we have made up stories about who they are based on the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their nationality, their gender, their age, their politics, their geography, their clothes, or the soccer team they root for.
In a weekly meeting of our compassion circle (people who are working to increase compassion practice skills together), we have talked about this judging others obstacle. Many of us believe it has been our biggest obstacle as we have intentionally worked on becoming more skilled compassion practitioners.
One story was told in our circle by a woman who was working as a CASA (court appointed special advocate for a child) volunteer. The child for whom she was the advocate was to be adopted and the adoption papers needed to be signed by the biological father who was in jail.
The woman noticed the swagger of the jailed father as he came into the room. The story she was telling herself was that this man was not much of a father, he had little concern for the child. It was not until she noticed the father's shaking hands as he tried to sign the adoption papers, that she began to question her assumptions. When the man broke down into sobs saying “I love that little girl. I don’t think I can do this," the compassion practitioner realized her mistaken assumption, her mischaracterization of the biological father. She found herself tearing up as she realized the depth of the man's grief and suffering...as she saw him in his humanity.
I was moved by a story which came out early in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A young, lost Russian soldier evidently wandered into Ukrainian territory. A Ukrainian woman came up to him with a cup of soup. Another gave him a cell phone to call his mother.
How could they do that? Somehow, these Ukrainians were able to look beyond the young man's Russian uniform and see him as a scared, hungry boy. When their eyes were opened to his humanity, their natural compassion oozed out and they helped.
If we want to be compassionate, we can work with our apathy, our overwhelm, and most especially our judgments. At least we can notice when we are judging and perhaps, suspend or check out our assumptions. Perhaps we might we go so far as to make a generous assumption about another – that this person, despite all appearances, is in fundamental ways very much like us…a human being... and, for whatever reason, needs our help.
We may need to use some caution and concerted thinking to discern how to help, but at least we have decided not to pass by.
How might we journey together to The Good Life by grappling with our blocks to compassion?
Who Is My Neighbor read aloud https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0gwSNHXJdA
If you are interested in Christian sermons on compassion, check out the seven compassion practice-based sermons written by Reverend Juli Reinholz in our sermons and stories under resources.
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