Sunday, May 6, 2012

The cost of compassion

May 6, 2012

Dear friends,

Defining terms like mercy or love or justice is no simple matter. And once we hammer out some kind of working definitions, we then discover that living out such characteristics requires us to follow definition with a lifetime of learning and practice.

The grocery store story produced in addition to the tuna fish/breakfast food mess the relational concept of compassion. And compassion is no easier to think about or to live than mercy or justice or love, either from the giving or the receiving end of things.

First an attempt at a working definition. Compassion consists of acts of kindness and consideration that grow out of recognition of limitations and suffering.

I suggested last week that it is sometimes easier for us to ask for forgiveness than to accept compassion. Why, you may ask, would anyone have difficulty accepting compassion—that is, permitting someone to behave with kindness and consideration? The answer is that we do not have difficulty receiving kindness and consideration as such—but we often choke on  kindness and consideration if we perceive it as based on recognition of our limitations and suffering.

The core of our difficulty, of course, lies in our reluctance to face vulnerability, our own or that of others, and the way in which we often link vulnerability with fear and shame.

A small interaction I observed last week illustrates my point. Ahead of me in line at the recreation center, a frail bent man extended his membership card with a shaking hand to the young woman at the counter. She scanned it, and then returned it to the man who dropped it. With considerable effort the man retrieved the card from the floor, then fumbled awkwardly to replace the card to the slot in his wallet where he carried it.

“May I help you?” the young woman asked kindly.

“I can manage my own affairs,” the man growled rudely and moved on with no apology for his bad manners.

The young woman looked understandably taken aback when the man responded so angrily to her kindness and looked after him with a frown.

I was next in line. I decided to risk meddling in affairs that clearly were none of my business. I said to the young woman, “I think that man would rather have you remember him as rude than as a person who needed your help.”

She looked startled, then thoughtful as she scanned my card.

“You know, I think you’re right,” she said and returned my card with a smile.

I think I was too, but I felt sad. Pride can be a formidable barrier to God’s gentle provision for us.

Thinking with you this week that permitting others to understand my limitations often opens the door to compassion rather than the shame I fear.

See you next week.


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