Compassion Reframed

Discussing my previous essay at lunch yesterday, I was reminded that the Christian understanding of compassion is not obvious in modern culture. Compassion, according to my meal companion, is a bottomless pit, or “black hole” as he described it. Because the “quagmire of needs and excess of misery” is so extensive on earth, those very miseries act as a black hole sucking compassion beyond what our beings are able to give. The result is that we are stretched to the point of despair.

That description begs a question: What is compassion? Or possibly more to the point: What is false compassion?

Compassion is not a felt need to fix the world. That felt need, common in modern western democracies, where we believe the lie that we can change the world, is not compassion. It is actually a form of triumphalism, a side effect of the Enlightenment and its wondrous discoveries. Politico-economic theories such as Marxism, National Socialism, and Austrian economics (ie, Friedrich Hayek) all include the assumption that the world ought to be improved. Although they go about it in different ways, they all present theories of world improvement on a grand scale.

Of course governments (in National Socialist theory) and large businesses (in Austrian theory) can do a great deal of good, leading to an improved life (the remarkable standard of living in the Western world being the obvious evidence for such a claim). When these economic theories are combined with the modern democratic tendency, these amazing strides are applied to individuals. We begin to think that we (that is, individuals) can and should do the same thing as governments. This is the fatal flaw of much of the world improving that goes on today.

Compassion, like all the virtues, is neither corporate, governmental, nor societal (although we often misapply the word “compassion” to these institutions. As a virtue, compassion is individual, and must grow from the heart. Rather than “compassion,” we would be better served to think in terms of “justice” when we think of government or corporate policies.

Rather than “fixing” we need to think of our lives in terms of “being.” As a result, authentic compassion cannot be separated from mourning, which is the more fundamental virtue out of which compassion grows. When a whole community is destroyed by a tornado (I live in tornado country, so it is an example that readily comes to mind) such as nearby Whiting or Wayne in recent years, there is, in fact, little that individuals can do to fix the problem. Recovery teams that went into Whiting, for instance, ended up doing as much harm as good because of untrained, overzealous volunteers who were simply beyond their depth.

In situations of disaster, high murder rates, the opioid epidemic, etc., the first and most important thing we can do is mourn. Suffering is a given in this life, and when I mourn, I take other people’s suffering into my own being and thus share their burden. This, by the way, is the etymological meaning of compassion (suffering—”pathos” – with—the prefix “com”).

Once we enter into this state of mourning and are suffering with those who are suffering, we are given insight into what I ought to do (in contrast to what I theoretically can do. Maybe I ought to invite a disaster stricken family to live with me for a few weeks until they get things sorted out. Maybe encourage and participate in an intervention to get an addict the help he or she needs, maybe I make a formal and personal complaint to the police department about how they treat the Hispanics or Native Americans in the community. Maybe I give someone a hundred or ten-thousand dollars so that they can get back on their feet.

So suffering with another person leads to concrete actions. We might call that step one and step two. Step three is learning to accept the accusations and condemnations that will inevitably come because I am not doing more. “You helped, Jane, but you refuse to help Jill. You are so selfish!” Being swayed by such pressure is not compassion; it is actually a form of cowardice.

In short, authentic compassion nearly always appears to fall short of the need. And when our actions fall short of the need, we will be accused of not doing enough. If I am a compassionate person, that will feel like a moral failing. And so I do more; I do things that I am actually not equipped to do. I over-extend. And it is at this point (the point where it is not about the suffering of others, but rather what others think of me) that the despair of helping others sets in.

So the final piece of compassion that is an absolutely necessary part of of authentic, divinely given compassion, is learning to bear the shame of never doing enough. That shame is the shame of recognizing that we are not God. That shame is the shame of recognizing that our resources, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual resources, are not infinite. The shame is the recognition that we live in a broken world, and that we can’t un-break it. That is for God alone to do.

True compassion is a gray and sorrowful nether world. True compassion reveals that we are inadequate and incomplete. True compassion leads full circle to even deeper mourning.

In a world where we think of happiness, comfort, a cell phone, and a free internet connection as rights, this sounds terrible. But if we are willing to take that gigantic and frightful step into the world more properly understood, we will discover something remarkable. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” When we dwell in that state of mourning that completely undoes us, we discover that we were undone all along (while just fooling ourselves with our veneer of happiness and a good internet connection). It is in this state of nether grayness that the true joy of God can begin to spread its light through our whole being. We not only discover who we are (undone and incapable), we discover who we are in Christ.

We, who live in the modern Western world, must always keep in mind that we cannot fix the world. We must also remember that fixing things is fraught with danger. Even when governments or corporations fix things, something else seems to go horribly wrong. Suffering is here to stay. Compassion is not fixing all the suffering around us; it is entering into that suffering, and helping where we can. In our triumphalistic world, that sounds inadequate and even escapist. Why? Because at the root of triumphalism is the assumption that we can fix it better than God can, or we have to fix it because God refuses to. Authentic compassion is the mirror opposite of that sort of triumphalism.

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