Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the 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 the powerless. Compassion means the full immersion in the condition of being human. -Henri Nouwen
To me, compassion really boils down to two things: seeing and being.
In some cases compassion can also lead to action, but often action is our tidy end goal and somewhat removes us from the pain and humanity of suffering. When taking action is an option, we may become insulated from the experience of compassion because taking action empowers us, making us feel we are solving whatever problem is being faced. We may see hunger, feed someone, and go on our way. Maybe see an accident and call the police as we are driving by, conscience clear because we did something to help. Certainly taking action in these ways serves enormous purpose! We are absolutely called to care for one another and it is compassionate to have mercy, to provide for needs, and to help where we are able.
Jesus was a man of just such action. He was able to see need and heal it, taking compassion on those he saw struggling and who sought relief. His remarkable dedication in giving of himself set for us an example of the selfless ways in which we are called to show compassion to others.
But what happens when the trials people face are not something in our power to change? When the problem goes too deep, is too complicated, is too expensive, or is just beyond our control to repair? We are not Jesus, fully human but also fully God with the power to heal all ills. There are some things we as humans just cannot fix. We may be tempted to respond with some platitude, like ‘God has a plan’ and ‘make your mess your message’ and ‘heaven needed another angel.’ These may make us feel better, as if we’ve helped, but really don’t aid those who are suffering and are more about us and our feelings than they are effective at comforting those who suffer.
There is truly no test of compassion like being powerless to help and yet still seeing the need, seeing the hurt and the struggle and, despite the pain we are witnessing and sharing, wading into the mire of suffering to simply be with those who are hurting. To hold their hands, to breathe the same air, to pray for them and, if they wish, to pray with them. Seeing the hurt of those who are suffering and being with them in it and through it, holding that sacred space of struggle and pain together. That is compassion. True compassion doesn’t only have to be shown through actions we can take to ease suffering, but often compassion is simply being with. Saying to the suffering: I can’t fix this, but I see you. I hear you. I am here with you.
*Photo courtesy of (in)courage