COMPASSION IS HARD WORK
The other day I was travelling along with two other friends in an auto rickshaw to church. It was a hot and humid day and all of us were sweating profusely. We could hardly wait to get to the air-conditioned sanctuary of the church. The auto kept crawling through the traffic and eventually stopped at a traffic signal. A couple of beggars approached us for alms and all of us looked the other way.
Then an old man with stumps where his legs ought to have been came crawling on a wooden platform. He headed not towards us, but to the auto rickshaw driver and asked for a drink of water. The driver opened up his bottle and the old man cupped his palms and drank. After he had drunk a bit and gulped it down, the driver was ready to put the bottle back but the old man gave a pleading look and asked for more.
Just at that moment, the signal turned green and we eagerly waited to see what would happen. The window period before it turned red was a short one and if the old man took an eternity to drink his second gulp of water, we were done for. We would be stuck in our traffic jam and be late for church. The auto driver was presumably aware of our impatient body language, but it didn't take him long to make up his mind.
Gently and graciously he placed the water bottle in the old man's lap and then without hesitation, kick-started his auto and dropped us off at church, so that we would not be late for worship. That hot afternoon, mercy and compassion were not to be found in my heart or those of my well-shod friends carrying our well-worn Bibles; it was to be found in the calloused palms of an auto driver, responding to the plea of a fellow human being.
That day I was again reminded that compassion can be a very demanding value. Compassion-suffering with-means travelling with people through the more painful and distressing parts of their lives. It means hospital and prison visiting. It means holding hands in the valley of the shadow of death. Many people given the choice would avoid occasions that demand compassion, which is why those who are going through a hard time often suffer from loneliness. Fair weather friends are those with a compassion deficit.
I suppose that the twin of compassion is patience because most situations that require a compassionate response also require a lot of patience. It is interesting to reflect on how our capacity for patience is diminished in the modern world. Those who use computers know the enormous frustration caused when the programme slows down or if an internet connection is disrupted. Drivers often experience something similar when the lights turn red or the motorway traffic grinds to a halt. We are tested by telephone answering devices that invite us to consider the options of all possible departments before allowing us to speak to a human being. If we have no patience, we cannot cope with a change to our plan of action. If we have no patience, we cannot accept that we are not in charge.
But the virtue of patience is one that allows us, from time to time at least, to have the grace to wait. Wait and see perhaps. Wait and let go of our anxiety and busyness. Wait and forget our self-importance and relax into a moment's contemplation of something that matters rather more than our self-flattering to-do lists.
In the first letter of John, he describes what compassion is supposed to look like. John says, "If you have enough food and shelter and money in your life, how can you say God's love abides in you if you have passed by a brother or sister who is in need and you did nothing?" (1Jn.3:17). Compassion is more than just pity. It is more than looking down at someone else who is having a hard time. Whitehead defined God as the compassionate "fellow sufferer who understands." Compassion seeks healing justice for all. Compassion seeks to relieve everyone's suffering. Compassion cares. Compassion is hands-on. John in his letter goes on to say, "Little children, let us love, not in words, but in action" (1Jn.3:18). Our behaviour is to express the truth that God's love is for all people.We are to be generous with our compassion. For the more you share your compassion, the more God promises you will be filled with compassion. Christ has often been called, 'The Man of compassion.” And that's because He entered the arena of human suffering and lifted burdens. That's what mercy is. Mercy is more than an emotional experience of feeling someone's pain, it's doing what's possible to alleviate it. Compassion is action!