The tugging of our heartstrings is important because a deep, lived, felt experience of compassion reminds us that we are all connected and we are one human family. Years ago, while traveling to Mexico on a mission trip, I came across a very young child who was naked and severely malnourished. She raised her arms up to me, like every child does, as a signal for me to pick her up. As I held her in my arms I could feel every tiny rib in her body. In her eyes I saw and felt a profound sadness like I have never experienced before. I knew that this child could have very easily been my own. How and why do I have a healthy baby boy who is back home safe with his father while this child is sick, alone, and in need of a stranger to hold her? In that moment, as anger, fear, and desperation to help consumed me, I understood the meaning of compassion. I also knew without doubt, that this young, suffering child was the divine presence of Christ.
The word "compassion" originally comes from the two Latin roots, cum (with) and pati (to suffer). "Compassion, according to Webster's dictionary, is defined as the "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it." The idea is that one individual enters into the hurt and suffering of another with authentic feeling and solidarity. Therefore, to feel compassion towards another is to internalize their suffering.
Sadly, as of late, there have been endless examples around the world of suffering thrusted into our consciousness; floods, hurricanes, fires, mass shootings, hate crimes, earth quakes, racial discrimination, terrorism…
I am fearful that with the constant assault of violence and devastation rapidly occurring in our world, that we are becoming numb to compassion. Why bother to care? Feeling indifferent is much easier than feeling compassionate. Compassion can be painful, especially when you feel helpless to end the suffering.
Even though compassion is technically a noun, personally, I believe we need to understand compassion, at least in the Christian sense, more as a verb than a noun. Compassion calls us to both become aware (educate ourselves) of the suffering of others and then to want to do something about it (social justice). When we truly feel compassion for another it moves so deeply that we cannot rest until we act.Compassion, in its truest sense, compels us to alleviate the suffering of another.
As Christians, if we genuinely want to understand and practice compassion we must look to the example of Jesus. Yes, Jesus was a compassionate human being but more importantly, his very life, suffering, and resurrection, shows us that God suffers with us, internalizes our suffering, and loves us. The Catholic Church is called to be a living sacrament for the world – a sign of the sacred, or invisible grace made visible. Yet, the more we know about the suffering in the world, the more paralyzed we feel and the more inadequate we consider ourselves. As individuals, the problems of the world and the work that is needed to solve those problems is overwhelming. It's too much, too difficult, too painful so our hearts shut down and we become numb. The opposite of compassion is despair, apathy, anger, and indifference. But again, we as Catholic's are asked to be Christ in the world, even when it is challenging.
Interestingly, compassion like athletic and academic skills, is something we can learn and improve on. Researchers have confirmed that compassion can be cultivated with training and practice. A new study by researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shows that adults can be trained to be more compassionate. "The report, published by Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that training adults in compassion can result in greater altruistic behavior and related changes in neural systems underlying compassion." When you show compassion, or extend your heart to others, it benefits you. "We know that as a species, we flourish and thrive when we care for others," says James Doty, a neurosurgeon and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. "Not only do you feel happier, but you feel better and you live longer." When you help someone, your heart rate decreases, the feel-good hormone oxytocin is released, and regions of the brain linked to nurturing and feelings of pleasure light up.
As I read the Gospels, I am repeatedly reminded that Jesus came to announce a new and countercultural way. Jesus' vision requires practicing radical compassion and living the simple lesson that in giving of ourselves, we find ourselves. Through Jesus' example, we find our strength to keep hope alive and stay motivated to act on the behalf of suffering of others. As Catholics, we are called to keep hope alive, to remind the world that God understands our suffering and is there with us in our sorrow. We are called to be sacrament to the world – a living sign of God's grace.
We must never give up on compassion. Our hope is in God and in God's power to raise from the dead our indifference and to fill our hearts with Christ's compassion.