Compassion is what we extend to others who bear the personal scars of their journey through the valley of vulnerability. We can all use a cheerleader at those times when we feel the most weak.
~Your ReDefining Moments, Dennis Merritt Jones
The collective heart of humankind is suffering; it is reeling in pain, calling out for us to pay attention to its wounds—and we can no longer avoid the call or pretend it is somebody else’s problem. Do you hear the call—can you feel the pull of the common heart of humankind? Between a worldwide pandemic, the extreme polarization of politics, compelling and timely social protests, and disastrous climate-related events, the recent few years have pretty much run us through the wringer. The pain being felt by so many is palpable. While many hear the call and feel the tug on their heartstrings, there are those who don’t: Either they can’t—or refuse to—hear the call; to feel the severity of the pain beckoning them to do something about it. We all have the capacity for compassion, but we don’t all respond to the call for compassion. How can that be? To address this quandary, I offer you the following modern-day parable told to me by one of my teachers years ago:
As the father and his two young children boarded the cramped city bus, they discovered seats towards the rear. The bus no sooner pulled away from the stop when the two youngsters began running back and forth, up and down the aisle, screaming and carrying on. Their father sat stoically, appearing not to care. After a bit, many of the passengers started to mumble; some even turned and glared disapprovingly at the father who just sat there with a blank look on his face—starring straight ahead. Eventually, the bus come to a halt at the man’s destination and as he stood up the kids ran down the aisle ahead of him. Before stepping off, he paused and turned to the passengers saying, please forgive my children. We are returning from the hospital where their mother just died and they don’t yet know how to deal with their feelings about the loss.
A sudden silence swept through the bus as passengers caught their breath. Many of them realized they had rushed to judgment and could only then sense the pain he was experiencing; they were feeling empathy for this man they didn’t even know. One passenger then expressed his understanding of the children’s behavior by saying, I’ve been there my friend—when my brother unexpectedly died I took care of his children—I saw and felt firsthand their pain. So, I need no apology. By expressing his understanding, he showed sincere sympathy for their situation. An elderly woman then stood and gently taking the man by the hand, said, I too, understand son. Having recently lost my beloved husband of sixty years, I understand and I feel the depth of the pain dealt to you and your children. While I feel and understand your pain—I also realize no words can ease that pain. I just want you to receive my touch, to know you are not alone. I stand with you in your moment of suffering. Peace be with you. By her words and actions, she was expressing authentic compassion towards the man and his children.
I offer this parable as a teaching story. It is my invitation to you to take a deep dive with me into the meaning and power of compassion—and what it requires arriving at that state of awareness. The heart of humankind is calling out for compassion; many human beings are in deep pain, but who is listening—and, more importantly, who is responding? Compassion is the greatest of the many soul lessons we have come here to learn because it reconnects us with the awareness there is only One of us here. Compassion becomes authentic when it becomes more than shared feelings of sadness, concern, or kind words. Compassion becomes authentic when it arises from the conscious and intentional sojourn we take inward to the soul and then ascends outward—not only moving our hearts but driving our behavior and actions as human beings. This journey requires awareness, courage, vulnerability, and action.
This Story is Our Story
My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.
It is important to understand that some aspect of every person in the above story lives in you and me. From the man and his children—to every other person on the bus—this is our story. We have all lost a loved one and know the pain and confusion it brings, and if we haven’t yet, one day we will. At some point on our journey through life we have all been the passengers on the bus; becoming distracted or irritated by the actions of others we perceive as “invading our space” and then coming to judgmental conclusions about them before gathering all the pertinent information. The beautiful fact is, we also all hold the same potential as the elderly woman; to feel empathy, to express sympathy, and to extend authentic compassion to those around us through our actions. This is what our world needs from you and me; it is the call and response of the human heart.
Perhaps some people avoid showing compassion for others because it reminds them of their own vulnerability, which terrifies them.
You’ve probably heard or used terms such as, “No pain—no gain” or “Pain is a given—but suffering is optional” so many times that you now just barely hear the statement when uttered, not giving it a second thought. It’s just a pithy way of minimizing pain and suffering, saying that it is an ordinary, unavoidable part of life and, therefore, we ought to learn to just “suck it up.” Expect it, accept it, embrace it, dance with it, get over it and then get on with life as usual. Can you see how that mindset hardens our hearts? While it makes for great cowboy talk, this line of thinking is symptomatic of the fact that we, as a culture, have become desensitized and conditioned to ignore or diminish the fact we (or others) are in pain. For many people, just admitting they are hurting (be it physically or emotionally) triggers a deep sense of shame which makes it nearly impossible to ask for help proactively. Perhaps some people avoid showing compassion for others because it reminds them of their own vulnerability, which terrifies them. The reason I am addressing this issue is because it is the deep dark hole from which a lack of compassion as a society—or as individuals—is spawned. Think about it; if we have been conditioned to ignore or diminish our own pain how can we possibly extend authentic compassion to others in pain.
There is Only One of Us Here
The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.
As you read these words, I invite you to pause, breathe, and open yourself inwardly. Seek the deepest core of your soul and ask, where in me can I more fully awaken to deeper authentic compassion—and listen carefully. The answer you seek will come—not just with words, but feelings and emotions as well—and it starts with mind-body awareness. There is deep work to do, tilling the fertile, receptive soil of a consciousness grounded in authentic compassion. Consciousness itself is the cauldron wherein our every belief percolates until it rises to the surface as an experience somewhere in our life. What lies in your consciousness right now? Become the observer of your mind and heart; see where there may be even a modicum of resistance to embracing the core idea that, beyond all appearances and opinions, there is only One of us here. Embodying the knowledge that we have all come from the same Source is the sole/soul entry point to authentic compassion; a deep abiding awareness of our oneness with life, with God, and with each other.
Empathy + Sympathy = Compassion
The trek to authentic compassion requires we first pass through the gateway of empathy and sympathy. Many think empathy, sympathy, and compassion mean essentially the same thing—which they don’t. When combined, they serve as the connective tissue that allows us to respond affectively to the call of a pained heart—be it an individual or all of humankind. The practice is to understand and remember these three stepping stones:
- Empathy marks our ability to enter the feeling nature of another person’s experience; to feel what they are feeling.
- Sympathy marks our ability to identify personally with and intellectually understand what another person is going through; to intellectually and emotionally process what they are experiencing.
- Compassion encompasses empathy, sympathy, and motivation; it marks our ability to feel what another feels, understand intellectually what another person is going through, and take some specific action to ease another’s suffering.
We Are All in This Together
When the Covid 19 pandemic began, the catchphrase, “We are all in this together” became very popular. It was a rallying call for unity, understanding, patience, cooperation, kindness, and compassion—to address issues that affected us all as one human family. If we are conscious, we know there is something within us that hears and feels the clarion call of that statement even now; we have been invited to respond to the pain, fear, and suffering of others, be they our next-door neighbors or strangers on the other side of the planet. How could we ignore them when we know there is only One of us here? That message is coming directly from the Beloved One to you, me, and the balance of all humankind. The question is, who among us will respond to the call? Like the passengers on the bus, we each hold the potential to actualize a compassionate heart.
Thinking the right thing is good. Saying the right thing is appropriate. But doing the right thing defines us. This is the call and response of the human heart. May this be the day we all hear and respond to that call.
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