I weep for those who are the enemies of compassion–persons who live with an abiding numbness that prevents them from identifying with the pain of others. I realize that there are often several contributing factors to the current numbness in our culture that infects the heart of so many, but that does not negate the pain I feel when I come to grips with the lack of compassion that exists in the midst of so much brokenness in our world.
How tragic it is when human misery becomes so commonplace that it is viewed as part of the cultural clutter we yearn to avoid. What happens to the human soul when we become unaffected by the cries of those who grieve and mourn? Do we undermine all that is human and beautiful that dwells within us when the ability to suffer with those who suffer is diminished?
I frequently wrestle with questions like these because I believe we are in a historical moment where compromising the sacredness of humanity has become all too common. Sadly, the sacredness of humanity is often lost in places where we have allowed our selfishness to overpower our capacity to be compassionate.
Walter Brueggeman, author of “The Prophetic Imagination,” reminds us that over and above the numbness that permeates our culture, compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt that exists in our world is to be taken seriously–that hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unaccepted condition for humanness. What a powerful reimagining of the concept of compassion. The notion that compassion is not merely regarded as a personal, emotional reaction but as an act of criticism against the numbness that has captured our culture means that being compassionate can be viewed as a radical and revolutionary act.
Brueggeman goes on to write: “Quite clearly, the one thing the dominant culture cannot tolerate or co-opt is compassion–the ability to stand in solidarity with the victims of the present order. It can manage charity and good intentions, but it has no way to resist solidarity with pain and grief.”
Brueggeman further states: “The structures of competence and competition stand helpless before the one who groaned the groans of those who are hurting. And in their groans, they announce the end of the dominant social order.” What an empowering and liberating jolt to one’s humanity when one embraces the fact that the capacity to feel the pain and hurt of those who are marginalized could mean the end of all social structures that invalidate pain by an incapacitating depth of numbness.
Let me be clear: I am not naively underestimating how difficult it is to be or become a compassionate person. Compassion is hard because it requires a seismic shift of one’s spirit. Compassion necessitates transcending personal prejudice and bias in order to journey and suffer with those who are broken and vulnerable.
Henri Nouwen once said, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
In times like these, if we are going to avoid the peril of being inhumane, we must take compassion seriously. Mother Teresa put it best when she said, “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.”