Compassion

Leunig  KINDNESS: Never underestimate the ripple effect

Leunig KINDNESS: Never underestimate the ripple effect

“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” (Frederick Buechner)

The word compassion has a beautiful sound to it. For a long time the word has had an ‘onomatopoeic’ association for the author of this humble reflection. He has connected it to a “bell”, a campana. Not only on account of the similarity in sound, but more so because of the visual image of a heart which strikes like a beautiful bell to bring hope to those nearby. Etymologically, compassion, is originally from the Latin: com [with] and pati [to suffer]. It literally means to suffer together with another. Is there anything in the world more valuable and full of potential than comprehending the pain of another and doing whatever we can to relieve that soul of some of its hurt? We look for that moment when we might jump into the water to save a drowning child or to show our courage by pulling out a stranger from a burning car. Yet these situations where great acts of bravery are required, will more likely than not, never be demanded of us. The irony is that every day we can perform such marvellous acts in different and no less significant ways.

To enter into the pain of another, to share in the affliction of my neighbour, to have empathy and then to go beyond it and to do something in response, that is compassion. To come to the aid of another, is a great step forward in our realization of what it means to be truly human. Buddhism teaches that to realize enlightenment there are two qualities which must be developed, these are wisdom and compassion. It is said that in the Qur’an compassion occurs more frequently than any other word. In the Judaeo-Christian scriptures compassion is at the core of its ethical revelation which for many is summarized in the “Golden Rule” of Christ: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). Compassion is to refuse to give in to hopelessness, not only in our reaching out to another, but also in the very act of loving ourselves. The often misinterpreted German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer has put it succinctly, “Compassion is the basis of all morality”. It is also the seat of love for without it, love is without its flesh.

Compassion can be practised daily, in the ordinary things. If only we could know how many fires of human desperation we could extinguish by these simple and everyday acts. An uplifting letter of support to friend or stranger or better still, to a “foe” who might be suffering; the gift of your coat to somebody who is wet and cold; stepping into a hospital unannounced to ask if you might share some moments with the sick; practising the great art of forgiveness; taking the blame for another who might not possess your strength; stepping over an ant hill on your way to work; giving up your position in the queue to someone in a greater hurry than you; saying sorry when you don’t really have to; helping someone who is unsure cross the busy street; telling a blind man or woman that truly they are beautiful; sending a bouquet of flowers to a random address. Even a knowing smile can save a life. All of these things, this little list of charities which return to the giver a far greater blessing than what is given, have the potential to change lives. This person too, the recipient of your grace, will remember and add to this gift for it will invariably be paid forward.

Often enough compassion might be as simple an act as accepting each other, and understanding that each of us will grow and flourish in different times and in different places.

For others in those extreme places of unfathomable love and grace, compassion might well mean actual identification. As it did for those early missionaries who for the sake of their beloved lepers not only lived together with them in abandoned colonies, but also allowed for themselves to be stigmatized, literally, and to suffer alike in the flesh.

Here is the greatest strength of all, rising above our deepest fears and hidden prejudices. To step into the shoes of the other. There is the beginning.

“My dear Lord, please allow for these words, for these expressions of charity to take on flesh, that my desire to practise compassion becomes real and does not remain hollow. Allow for the eyes of my heart to see the presence of the Creator in each and every hand which might reach out to me.” 

The Benefit of the Doubt

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations.  It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills” (Buddha).

James J. Tissot's  The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise  (1896)

James J. Tissot's The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise (1896)

Each day we might look for ways to become better and more compassionate people; a smile here, or a little charity there, perhaps even an encouraging letter to a stranger. Every kind and caring deed helps the heart grow softer to become a more suitable vessel for instruction and illumination. There is also the practice of another action, often forgotten, which brings much joy to both the giver and receiver: the giving of the benefit of the doubt. But what does this mean? It is taking someone at their word despite the doubt, that you are willing to put every suspicion aside. You are prepared to pass the advantage to the other, however difficult this may initially seem. It can save a life and build new futures for those to whom this wonderful grace is extended. It is another chance. Might we at times feel we have been misused? Have, we too, not in some ways misused others or at least the gifts we have received from the Creator? Are we that much better? Is this not also one of the great lessons of Christ’s pardon of the penitent thief on the cross? (Lk. 23:32-43) The benefit of the doubt can also be connected to forgiveness. And have we not all, at some stage of our lives, been desperate to hear similar words of release from a loved one or friend. But this giving of the ‘advantage’ must come with no qualification and with strong love that it survives the test of time. Let us always be encouragers, never shut the door, and have nothing to do with the spread of despair. How much aching we not only lift from ourselves by not remaining captive to the poison of suspicion, but also what joy and hidden possibility we could help to set free in the life of others by simply saying, “I do believe in you, and I am truly sorry if I have caused you hurt by the withholding of my trust." Sometimes a wounded soul might wait for years to hear these words that it may once more dance lightly upon the earth and with gladness look forward to the new day. “Oh, Heavenly Father, allow for me to genuinely practise this graceful act of surrendering the advantage to the other, without doubt or the return of suspicion, that I, too, might be the recipient of such a beautiful release.”

Humility

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

Ford Madox Brown's  Jesus Washing Peter's Feet  (1876) 

Ford Madox Brown's Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (1876) 

Few have been able to write deeply on humility, and of these authors only a handful are widely known. The real witnesses to this special grace have invariably been those who have lived by its fruits. So important and fundamental a virtue it is, that all of the great religions understand it as a necessary condition for the acquisition of wisdom and enlightenment. A virtue is something more than a good quality. It is a call to transformation. Many of us are ruled not so much by God or ‘disbelief’ but our pride. And yet, once we understand this actuality in our lives and are able to define it, we can use it to help us grow in the spirit. If we should look honestly into our heart we will find even before we open our mouths to speak, the initial action to be inspired by pride, either in the asserting or refuting of a statement. These are not negative responses in themselves, not always, but typically they will be made with the intent to establish our own credibility or to diminish that of another.

Humility, it is said by those who have studied this royal path, would prefer to silence or to surrender the ego, to throw the light onto the other who is standing opposite. Sometimes it might mean to accept calumny for a season or to suffer an injustice and to respond with charity rather than vengeance. More often than not we will have saved our soul from distress and allowed for the truth to reveal itself in other more meaningful ways. Humility is not a sign of weakness, or giving up on the fight, or hiding one’s talents under the bushel. It is a quiet but powerful statement of a person living through an unshakeable peace, someone that has knowledge of their potential. It also means to be acutely aware of one’s own defects and failings, to be constantly mindful of the log in the eye. The etymology of this beautiful word ordinarily connected to the Latin humilitas for “grounded” or “from the earth” can also be traced to the Old French umelite which can also mean “sweetness”.

So why have I published this piece? Am I not skirting with a terrible danger? Particularly since humility has never been one of my strengths. But I want to get a clearer picture of my mortal enemy- the exalting of the self... so that I could become more familiar with its approach. To discern it when like that clade of lizards which change colour, it might not in every single instance get around me. In the Christian scriptures there is no greater revelation as to the awesomeness and potential of the practice of humility than the lesson of the ‘kenosis’ when Christ emptied himself of his divine glory: “[b]ut made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). And so there is a bodily labour to humility as well, it is not just talk. Love and humility are co-existent, uniquely powerful as forces of change, and at their most genuine, indistinguishable one from the other.