Our Human Compassion

Our Human Compassion

“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”
Nelson Mandela

The blinds were drawn. The room was darkened on a sunny afternoon. Her downcast posture and demeanor signaled her depression and fatigue.

It was our first meeting with her.

We learned that she had stage four cancer, most likely in the end stages. The only times she got out, especially in the icy, cold winter season in which we visited, were mostly to go to the doctor or for her chemotherapy treatments.

She was lonely, defeated and simply worn out.

Her cancer had challenged her for years. She had pain that wouldn’t go away. Sleep was always interrupted and intermittent. Surviving entirely on Social Security, she depended on a local food bank to provide enough food; most months it wasn’t quite enough. To make it all harder to take, the holidays had just ended and it wasn’t the best of seasons for her. It wasn’t just because of the cancer and its plethora of relentlessly debilitating side-affects. It was also because of the people she loved the most – her family. She had spent most of the season alone. Stuck much of the time at home, she had very few visitors. Memories of celebratory Thanksgivings, merrier Christmases and happier New Years saddened her. She feared there would be no more of them.

Tears flowed as she told us her story. Her living room walls were filled with photos of her large extended family; four generations of faces and milestones dominated the room. She spoke of loss and of longing, of limitations and of lament. Her late husband. Her parents. Her brothers who don’t keep in close touch. Those whom she nurtured and to whom she devoted her life often hurt and disappointed her. This was not the way she had imagined her life would be.

Now, in her most vulnerable season, she feared the loneliness that her health and age would surely continue to bring.

We asked her what keeps her going, what sees her through.

“My faith”, she responded. “It’s the one thing I have that gives me the strength I need to do what I have to do.”

As we were preparing to leave, we asked if we could offer a prayer for her. She was eager for that and so we prayed. Her tears flowed more. She embraced us, grateful. We promised that we’d return.

A few weeks later, when we did, we were stunned by who greeted us at the door. It was her. But it was a very different her.

This day, the blinds were open. The room was bright on that sunny afternoon. Her more energetic posture and demeanor signaled her happiness and renewed enthusiasm. She was simply not the same woman we had seen just weeks before. We told her what we saw. We asked her why.

“It’s because you came to visit me. It’s because you sat here with me and listened. It’s because you showed that you cared. You let me tell you all about myself. You didn’t interrupt. You didn’t tell me what to do. You let me cry and it was okay. You let me tell you things I never told anyone else before. That’s why.”

It was as simple as that.

But maybe it’s not so simple for far too many of us. We like to say that what we do every day is not brain surgery. How hard, after all, is it to be intentional about visiting someone, listening to her story, showing her that she matters? But maybe it is like brain surgery. Not the actual act of working to heal a brain physically. But maybe the act of trying to heal the way a brain thinks and responds.

Maybe if we can help one another to understand how meaningful it is to simply make an intentional effort to share a little time with someone who is alone and feeling lonely, with someone whose health is fragile, with someone whose life circumstances limit mobility and community. Maybe if we can understand that we all need one another, that we’re all in this together, that we’re made for relationships and that all of us begin to thrive when someone shows simple care.

Why is it so hard to understand that – and then act upon it?

We experience sacred moments every day. Visiting her both days was sacred. We didn’t realize it that first time. But she showed us vividly that second time. During that first visit, we just felt bad for what she was going through. We wished that we could do something to fix it. What we didn’t realize that day was that we had. It was simply our presence, sitting with her and giving her the safety to talk and cry, to recount her life and know that we had heard it. That’s what did it.

That’s what was sacred. And then seeing the difference it had made and having her acknowledge that was very sacred too.

We believe that all of us have the capacity to be part of those sacred moments. All of us can be more intentional about visiting, listening and showing that someone matters. It’s not just something that we professionals are able to do. It’s something we humans are created to do.

And when we can see just how our compassionate presence can actually lift someone from loneliness and despair, it indeed is a sacred moment that cannot be forgotten.

As Nelson Mandela stated, “Our human compassion binds us together.”


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