I’d like to think that I am a compassionate person. However, I’ve spent time examining some of my responses to friends when they’ve suffered or struggled through difficult circumstances and I’ve realized the depth of my compassion can be very shallow at times.
In his book, Turn My Mourning into Dancing, Henri Nouwen has this to say about compassion:
The word [compassion] comes from roots that mean literally to “suffer with.”‘ To show compassion means sharing in the suffering “passion” of another. Compassion understood this way asks more from us than a mere stirring of pity or a sympathetic word.
To live with compassion means to enter others’ dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer.
I don’t think any of us really like “staying where others suffer.” I know I don’t. Consequently I am quick to offer solutions and advice. I am quick to suggest that “we must pick up our cross” forgetting that even Jesus had help carrying his cross (Luke 23:26). I wonder how many times my words of “exhortation” have only made a friend’s cross seem even heavier? As Nouwen puts it:
We try to help our friends quickly process grief…All the while however, we act less out of genuine suffering with and more out of the need to stand back from the discomfort we might feel…Our hesitation to look squarely at another’s suffering, to sit or stand with someone in pain, weighs on conversations an obligation for the other to “act happy”…Our evasions do not help others but rather cause them to put up defenses and drive away those who need someone to care. By offering premature advice on how to cope, by rushing to reassure, by prodding with advice, we say much about our need for easy closure. When we barge in with such consolation, we make hurting souls into objects or projects.
One reason we react to others this way grows out of our skirting of our pain. We resist getting near the suffering of another partly our of our unwillingness to suffer ourselves. For another’s hardship suggests to us what can also hurt us.
As I’ve reflected on Nouwen’s words I’ve come to the conclusion that I often lack compassion because I do not suffer well. When suffering comes my way I am slow to accept the trial and quick to complain. If I cannot embrace my own suffering and difficulties then how can I sit with someone else in the midst of their suffering and pain. I’d never made this correlation before but it does makes sense. Those who embrace their own pain and suffering (like Jesus) are better able to show compassion, better able to suffer with others in the midst of their pain.
I am hesitant to even write this next sentence because of what it implies.
Father, help me to be more compassionate.