“Again and again it is said of Jesus that He was moved with compassion, either for the crowds or for some sufferer” *
Do we Christians really want to be like Jesus? Well, we can’t be like Jesus without developing a huge capacity for compassion. Jesus was moved to His “bowels,” which is the strongest word in Greek for pity and compassion. It means He was moved to the very depths of His being because of the plights of sufferers around Him. Because He loved us, He deeply cared about us (still does). He couldn’t help Himself, any more than can a devoted mother help feeling compassion when her child is ill or hurt.
“Empathy” and “compassion” are like twin sister words. They both refer to someone’s identifying with the feelings, thoughts, and situations of another creature, human or animal. But, whereas “empathy” can refer to identifying with either good or bad feelings, “compassion” is restricted to referring to feelings of deep sympathy for another’s suffering or misfortune. Someone with a lot of compassion is suffering right along with the sufferer, and is highly motivated to do whatever it takes to alleviate that individual’s suffering, if at all possible. Jesus did the ultimate for our suffering – He gave His life so that we might have eternal life. Moreover, He expects us to be willing to give our lives for one another, should the need arise. No bones about it, compassion is serious business for Jesus! Notice the high expectations and conditions in the following passage from the Gospel of John.
“I demand that you love me just as much as I love you. And here is how to measure it. The greatest love is shown when a person lays down his life for his friends, and you are My friends IF YOU OBEY ME” (John 15:12-14 caps mine).
A marvelous, sweet story of compassion appeared in the January, 1986 edition of Guideposts Magazine, ~author Ardis Whitman.
“It was late afternoon on a spring day and we had gone, my husband and I, to buy flowering shrubs at a nursery. Our little granddaughter, Leslie, then seven years old, had come with us. In a shed on the grounds, there was a cat with a bevy of newborn kittens that a group of children were picking up and cuddling. The mother cat, frightened, was spitting.
Leslie paid no attention at all to the kittens. Instead, she approached the mother cat gently with little pats and soothing sounds. “She is so afraid,” Leslie said, frowning in anxious love, “She doesn’t want anybody to hurt her children.”
My husband and I were very proud of her, for compassion is not an easy virtue. It is kindness, but it is more than kindness. It is the wonderful capacity to put oneself in the place of the other, caring as if another’s sorrows were one’s own.”
Opportunities to practice compassion are limitless. While the need to help a fellow creature who is in serious pain, right in front of us, may occur only rarely, suffering is all around us in our world. Unmet needs are everywhere. May I suggest a strategy to help us organize our compassionate responses?
1. First of all, recognize our responsibility, as Christians and as decent humans, to demonstrate and grow in compassion throughout our lives. For Jesus, this is not optional!
2. Recognize that our good response WILL affect others in a good way, but also, our lack of response WILL affect them in a bad way, oftentimes very seriously. When we do nothing, but could, we send a message, loud and clear, that we do not care about the sufferer.
3. Decide upon and commit ourselves to needs, within our capabilities, that we can help with, without neglecting other important responsibilities. Being over-committed usually fails in the long run. We become overwhelmed.
4. Make various changes in our life routines great or small, which allow us to be more caring citizens of the earth and its inhabitants.
5. As we go through our days, be vigilant for even small situations in which we can make things better for those around us, including the wonderful, precious animals.
Some examples of the above are as follows. I’m sure you could generate a very long list also We need to identify, or have empathy with, others continually. When someone is sick, we need to do all we can for the person, as appropriate. We should ask ourselves, “If it were me, what would I like someone to do for me to help me do or feel better?” “How would I feel in that human’s or animal’s situation?”
Oh, how we need to practice awareness and sensitivity, ”Southern hospitality,” which makes people (and animals) feel so good instead of so bad! Several years ago, I had double pneumonia. Well, my church sent me a flower gift, which was nice, but day after day, I lay there, confined and lonely. Oh, how I wished even one person would have thought to give me a call! Then, too, I don’t suppose it ever occurred to anyone how badly I would feel when no one would say “Good Night” to me as I walked out after choir practice, or when I didn’t have anyone to visit with on the bus to choir singing events. If we go to a church picnic and notice individuals sitting alone, being ignored, we should make the attempt to engage in interesting conversation with them. At one church picnic I went to, there was an older couple sitting there being ignored. Everyone was sitting in a big circle, but no one was paying any attention to them. Of all things, the minister and almost everyone else then got up and walked off to watch others playing volleyball, without even inviting the couple to join them. How rude! I felt badly, and proceeded to visit with the couple, having compassion upon them, because of how they must have felt.
Another incredibly huge area of need is animal welfare. Billions of animals go through excruciating pain and misery every day in this country, mostly caused by humans. Well, we, individually, can’t stop all of it. But, we sure can do a lot to help, if we care enough and just make the effort. We can volunteer at our local SPCA. We can send money to any of the many wonderful animal sanctuary and rescue organizations, as well as those organizations which fight animal abuse and try to change the laws in animal favor. Moreover, we can stop supporting the industries that get rich by hurting animals - the factory farms, especially, with their horrible and inhumane birthing, rearing, and slaughtering practices. The factory farms are causing, every day, atrocities every bit as bad as the Nazis did to the Jews. We have our own holocaust right around us. If we care, if we have real compassion on those poor animals, we will definitely stop supporting those industries. We will stop helping consciousless people torture the animals! The president of my local animal advocates group says, “We don’t eat our friends!” We can discourage hunting and fishing. We should never attend sporting events, such as rodeos and races, which involve animal neglect and cruelty. We can try to not purchase products which have been obtained by destroying animals’ habitats. We can not purchase articles made of animals’ body parts, such as fur. We can give up activities injurious to animal habitats, such as snowmobiling. We can make sure our own animals are very well cared for and are comfortable. We can make sure we spend quality one-to-one time with house pets, realizing they need our companionship and love to have good quality of life. There are many, ways we can help in just this one area of great need – animal welfare.
Well, examples involving compassion could be endless, but so much in this area just boils down to plain common sense. When we notice that we are in a position to make some creature’s quality of life more positive, we should do it. After all, we would not have the quality of life that we have if it were not for the work of countless other people, and countless animals, such as horses, who helped build this country.
To become really good at becoming a compassionate, loving being, we need to get our mind off our own concerns enough to really pay attention to others. A lot of times, we need to change our priorities in terms of what we go around thinking about and what we occupy our time with. As we grow in the habit of compassion, we decrease in the habit of self-absorption. We also grow spiritually in a very real way.
It is never too early to begin teaching, or molding, a child to be compassionate. Good parent-infant bonding, which includes sensitive, warm, soothing, comforting, secure handling, timely feeding, eye contact, and gentle vocalizing, provides a solid foundation for an infant to develop into a warm, caring individual. The infant requires that all his or her needs are met in a timely manner, time and time again, by a loving, stable caregiver, in order to feel secure and to develop a sense of basic trust in his or her environment. Then, the child can be relaxed deep inside. Basically, a child learns compassion by being treated lovingly and compassionately, by parents who are themselves compassionate people. If children are treated too harshly, if their needs are not met very well, or if they are ignored too much, they probably will not learn to be compassionate. Abused and/or neglected children start “walling off” their warm feelings to try to protect themselves from hurt at incredibly young ages. When they shut down their own feelings to themselves and the world around them, they shut down their awareness of the warm, or hurting feelings of others, too. Self-protection becomes predominant, and rage is present.
When parents spend frequent quality time with their children, numerous situations arise in which they can point out the feelings of other children and animals, and help the children understand that others have feelings just like their own. Reading stories of compassion, and seeing heart-warming movies helps. Also, seeing compassion modeled repeatedly between family members is just invaluable. When mom and dad do compassionate things for friends, relatives, and neighbors, children notice. Unfortunately, the converse is all too true. Children learn all too well from witnessing family episodes of merciless unkindness. Even supposedly harmless teasing can really hurt and sends a very bad message! Anytime we respond in a compassionate way, we model compassion as a good, desirable, valuable thing to engage in. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if being compassionate all of a sudden became the really “in” thing to do? How the whole tone of our world would change!!
One reason people resist responding compassionately to someone’s plight is that they were brought up in ways which caused them to have values and attitudes which are incompatible with feeling sympathy for others. I am reminded of the character in the movie “Shiloh,” who said “Nobody ever was sorry for me, so I got no sorry for nobody!” What is particularly tragic is when a child does not even develop the brain circuits to feel empathy or compassion. Life experiences do impact upon brain development! When I was studying relevant material in college years ago, we were taught that, if a child had not developed a conscience or the capacity to feel and show real warmth before the age of 12, there was no hope for remediation to occur, no matter what technique was used. I hope that is not true! Sometimes even hardened criminals have been miraculously changed.
Then, too, people often times do not want to “get involved.” Look the other way. Don’t want to hear about it. Too inconvenient. Too much trouble. Could be dangerous. Could be a “sticky” situation. None of my business (which could be true!). Although there are still wonderful individuals who risk their very lives to help others in an emergency, it is still too true that our culture fosters the idea that we are not responsible for one another, and that we shouldn’t be. That’s sure not what Jesus said, is it!!
People are caught up in their own busy lives too much. Some are driving to get ahead at all costs. Others are just struggling to stay afloat! There are so many demands, and the pressure is on so much, that there often is not time or energy to pay attention to the situations of others, good or bad, or to respond. Neighbors don’t usually know what is happening to other neighbors, because they don’t hardly know them anyway. So many relationships are purposely kept very casual and superficial, and being “needy” is frowned upon. Therefore, most people don’t want others to know what their problems are anyway. A very nice friend once told me her Christian philosophy of living. She said she had her “garden to tend” and other people have their “gardens to tend” and that’s the way it should be – everyone tending their own gardens. Sounds good. We should definitely take care of our “gardens.” But, that way of proceeding is not what Jesus taught. He said we are our brother’s keeper. We should help and encourage one another. We should love our neighbors as ourselves (which implies that we should at least know them!) Real love is active love, for our families and for everyone else within our sphere of living.
Let’s do it! Let’s go for it! Whatever our level of compassionate living, let’s increase it. As well as being a real blessing to those animals and humans we help, our loving actions send out a ripple effect. Let’s be more and more like Jesus! Remember, what is hurting others would be equally as painful to us if we were in their situation. We can’t forget them. We must do all that we can, even if it hurts us a lot to be aware of how they are hurting. Jesus wants us to. He calls us to.
*Barclay, William, The Mind of Jesus, Harper & Row (New York,1960), p. 81.
Dr. Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org