|Another excellent wordless book.|
In my previous post on Sympathy, I sought to make two vital truths clear.
First, that the only alternative to sympathy is to actively establish and reinforce our antipathy toward those we choose to exclude from consideration as our fellow human beings. Otherwise, we would be forced to acknowledge even a minimal identification with their experience, and “feel for them,” perhaps even expressing that sentiment before returning to our own personal concerns.
Second, that allowing ourselves to experience sympathy for any other person almost invariably leads us to do more than merely express our acknowledgement of another’s circumstance and its consequences. When we truly recognize the realities of another’s experience, it becomes difficult to ignore the correlation between their needs and “our” resources. For all our more exacting definitions of “ministry,” the simple fulfillment of loving our neighbors as ourselves is this: Applying the resources God provides to the needs He shows us.
The Foundations of Compassion
What is that causes us not only to recognize, but to feel compelled to do something about another’s condition? We may not be able to entirely ameliorate their circumstances (as I noted in the “sympathy” post—ameliorate = to improve or restore another from having incurred damage). Perhaps we may merely mitigate the consequences (i.e., lessen the severity of damage to another from their condition). And sometimes, we will find that we can only imperfectly palliate what they are experiencing (i.e., diminish the pain they feel amidst the damage being done). The frustrations are very real. There is often less we can do than we would like to do. But the need to step forward in compassion is a very real motivator resulting from a foundational impulse built into us as human beings.
|Do you hear it? Something's out there.|
The reality of our interdependence upon other human beings is undeniable. But rather than begrudging the necessity of interpersonal interaction, most of us choose to form relationships with others. In fact, we often choose to live with at least a few others in authentic, transparent, and vulnerable intimacy. Even if we were guaranteed protection from others’ damaged condition resulting in damage to us (As one has phrased it, “Hurt people hurt people.”), the simple fact of recognizing others’ needs and meeting them from with “our” resources recommends against such actions. So why do we engage others at all? Much less in even casual relationships? Not to mention the handful of close, personal bonds that sometimes magnify the pain of unmet expectations, coupled with the inevitable loss that will eventually occur?
Why do we do it?!
Because that’s the way we are built. For all the other imaginations of what it means to be “created to bear the image and likeness of God,” it is clearest to me when I remember that I am called to serve “one God, eternally existing in three persons.” The interrelatedness of human beings is merely a reflection of the interrelatedness of the Creator who formed each of us, and built into us the same impulse to vital connection that exists among the persons of that one God. There’s much more to say about the Trinity, of course. But I don’t want to leave our discussion of unity in and among diversity, and especially the requirements that must be met for compassion to be fulfilled, not frustrated.
The Essential Condition of Compassion
There are alternatives, of course. Paul Louis Metzger recently wrote regarding the perception of some Amida Buddhist friends that our goal should be emancipation from anything external to ourselves. Quoting Buddhism’s “Heart Sutra,” Dr. Metzger points out that some Buddhists see John Lennon’s “Imagine” as synopsizing their ultimate goal of withdrawal from anything of meaning, anything that would cause passion, or even a response to the physical world in which we live. Success in eliminating one’s own personhood would seem to overcome any interpersonal conflicts. But in a world where our minds and hearts are inexorably intertwined with a body that cannot help but interact with the surrounding world, the necessity of interpersonal relationships is indisputable. The inherently impersonal eradication of self is an impossibility, since it would be the self that must will and act to eradicate its self.
|It's not difficult to enforce solitude...temporarily.|
Our interpersonal interactions will necessarily entail the recognition of one another’s needs. We are designed to respond in sympathy to one another, and to act on that sympathy in compassion. As Buddhists rightly observe, this leads to conflict. Even when I choose to share “my” resources with another, there is the potential for them to see my actions as patronizing, or even demeaning toward them. And, whether gratitude is shown or not, I may imagine that my role is more essential to them than theirs is to me. I may proudly take on the role of benefactor, forgetting that they possess important resources for my needs, even as I deliver assistance to them.
Is the solution, then, to these inevitable interpersonal conflicts the Buddhist’s eradication of self? If that were possible, if withdrawal into impersonal isolation comes within reach, from where comes this continued longing for “emancipation” that Dr. Metzger’s sources describe? In that context, it would seem that our greatest emancipation must surely be a secure asylum from the “hell” that is “other people?” (That’s existentialist Jean Paul Sartre’s estimation, by the way, not mine.)
|But it might be good to hear others' opinions, too.|
So, what alternative remains? Our interpersonal impulses are undeniable, and conflict, therefore, is inevitable. On what basis, then, can we fulfill our desires to engage one another in compassion? Rather than withdrawing into isolation, how do we still avoid escalating the conflict until it is the other’s person we eradicate?
Compassion can continue, despite the conflicts our interpersonal relationship create between those in need and those with resources (even when we recognize that those in need have resources that are needed by those with certain resources for the other’s need). Because, in addition to being built with an impulse to interpersonal relationships, we are also built with an innate recognition of our own contributions to interpersonal conflicts. As much, and often more, than I need to forgive others for their roles in conflict, I need the forgiveness of others for my own roles in creating, ignoring, patronizing, or simply failing to ameliorate, mitigate, or palliate wherever I have opportunity.
Dr. Metzger’s conclusion, that “we can break out of the perpetual cycle of hostility and extend forgiveness to others” by pursuing “a way that produces actions of love rather than those of indifference and hate.” That way leads to, into, and through a relationship with the One who has sought to establish the foundations of our compassion by showing, in the most extraordinary terms, His compassion in providing for our forgiveness.
On a practical note: What if there’s nothing I can do?
Compassion’s calling on our lives can be all too clear when another needs financial support, an extra hand for an occasional project, a ride to the doctor’s office, or even a shoulder to cry on…temporarily. But there if often a nagging sense that we should do something about needs that are not so clear, and especially about needs that are clearly beyond our ability to ameliorate, mitigate, or even palliate. (I hope it’s clear that I think you should learn these vocabulary words.)
|You never know when you'll need someone to reciprocate.|
In the most extreme circumstances, it may seem like we have nothing whatsoever to share, simply because we cannot imagine that anyone has anything to share that could help in any way. For example, regarding the frustrations of those who desperately wish to make a more tangible difference in the brief remaining lives of the imminently dying, a couple of quotes frequently come to mind.
I remember it being Jackson Rainer who said, at an American Academy of Bereavement training, “To exist with them at the moment of their crisis is to be significant in the life of another.” Dr. Chris Camarata, former medical director for Mayers Memorial Hopsital/Intermountain Hospice, frequently commented, “Don’t underestimate the impact of being willing to sit with them, even if all we can do is to bear silent witness to their pain.” I have been in many situation as a chaplain, pastor, friend, and/or family member where there was nothing I could change about the circumstances others were facing. But that doesn’t mean I had nothing to do. It took great effort, in fact. But in those times and places, I stayed.
Sometimes, our greatest compassion is shown by fighting the urge to flee from what we cannot fix.
Even if what needs fixed is my self.