Compassion Defined

Compassion Defined

Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.

For next several blogs we want to talk about Compassion.  And specifically, we want to reference a book we love by Henri Nouwen called, Compassion.  This is a subject we have talked about before but want to talk about in more detail because we believe that compassion is the most important virtue someone can have.

 The word compassion  is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which mean “to suffer with.”  Nouwen says:

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish.  Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.  Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with powerless.  Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.

People often ask us the question: How can you fully immerse yourselves in someone else’s challenges, burdens, and problems without taking those burdens on yourselves?  Our response to this question and others like it is that we first have to come to an understanding and an acceptance (like Nouwen says) of what it is like to be human.  

  • What is it like to experience spiritual, emotional, and physical pain?
  • What is it like to be scared? 
  • What is it like to be confused with the course of your life?
  • What does it feel like to be in anguish?  
  • What does it feel like to be lonely?  
  • What does it feel like to have something to share and no one to share it with?

Because we are human and because we have felt all of these things as well, it enables us to have empathy and to be able to walk with someone else through their times of difficulty.  Our value system compels us to suffer with those who are hurting and those who are in need.  We feel that we have a responsibility, as we all do, to journey and support others wherever their pathways take them–which is often in to some very painful, dark, and distressing situations.  As human beings who have gone through some painful, dark and distressing situations ourselves, and know what compassion looks like in those trying times, we respond in compassion to the needs of others. 
For example, I (Michael) can remember in the months and years after our third child was born and it was becoming increasingly obvious that he was living with severe intellectual disabilities and autism we had dozens of visits with his pediatrician.  When the time came for us to leave her office she would hand us the usual bill to take out to the front desk.  In nearly each instance she would write PCP, which stood for Physicians Courtesy Payment and essentially meant that she was not charging us for her time.  This Dr. had compassion on us–on what we were dealing with and living with with our son–as well as the fact that my wife wasn’t able to work outside the home at that point, I wasn’t making a lot of money at the time, and that our son’s disabilities would be a life-long challenge for us.  Her compassion for our circumstances and for the burdens we were carrying moved us very deeply.  Her compassion certainly inspired us to be as generous, sensitive, caring, giving, and loving as she was to us.  This is also part of the reason why I do what I do professionally and what my wife does professionally as an advocate for other familes living with children with disabilities.  

Not only is it important as a human being to experience what compassion looks like ourselves to inspire us to live compassionately, but it is also important to experience what compassion is not–in turn, inspiring us to live a different and a better way.  I (Tom) can remember instances in my life where I didn’t receive compassion in times of pain and anguish.  I have lived with chronic pain since I was a teenager and therefore I have spent much of my young adult life in the Doctors office.  I have interacted with Doctors who showed a lack of grace and sympathy towards me and my situation.  I remember many instances where I would walk in to the office and the Doctors wouldn’t remember my name or current situation.  More specifically, I remember entering the Doctors office one afternoon after breaking my ankle for the second time and the Doctor asked me the question: “So, we put a cast on your ankle the last time, correct?”  Clearly this Doctor had forgotten my name and all of the pain I had gone through previously (which had only been a few short months in between injuries).  I felt devalued, forgotten, and most importantly, overlooked. 

Can you remember instances in your life where you have or have not received compassion from someone else?  How did that make you feel?  Did it make you want to respond in compassion towards others?  Or, have their been times when compassion was not extended towards you?  How did that make you feel?  And has that motivated you to want to do things differently? 
In our next blog we hope to show how compassion is manifested between friends? 


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