Few events evoke such sadness and pain as a school shooting. A host of options are currently under debate in the public square. It seems to me, however, that each of these ideas works by suppressing behavior and does nothing to change the underlying health of our society. Is there anything we can do in a positive sense to improve the spiritual and mental wellness of our community and the individuals within it? I believe there is: to learn to live with compassion for others.
The Good Samaritan
A scholar of the Jewish law tried to put Jesus to the test with the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer (“The Two Great Commandments”) and parable (“The Good Samaritan”) that followed shook the thinking of the day with their truth and simplicity. You can read about what Jesus said here [Luke 10:25-37]. He told us to love God and one another as we love ourselves.
Compassion is not only about having feelings of pity or sympathy for someone. To act with compassion is to develop an understanding of and a concern for the suffering of another and then to take action in bringing relief to that person.
So what can we learn about compassion from the Good Samaritan?
- The Samaritan didn’t owe the injured man anything. In fact, he had strong cultural reasons not to get involved. We don’t love others because there’s something in it for us. On the other hand, living with love and compassion will make both us and our children better, healthier people.
- The Samaritan cared for the man’s injuries and needs. He went beyond the minimum. He could only have given him a sip of water and moved on. Or perhaps he could have gone so far as to bring him to the village and leave him on the corner. Instead, he did what was necessary to see to the man’s needs: caring for his injuries, giving him a place to stay, and him.
- He acted sacrificially and at significant personal cost.
- The issue isn’t to whomwe show compassion. It’s about howwe do it.
Avoiding sin and loving others has and always will be a struggle. I believe, however, there are cultural factors today that make living with compassion even more difficult.
Distractions and overload.It’s much harder to care for others when our attention is diverted elsewhere (e.g., possessions, cell phones), or we’re under stress.
Self-centrism and selfishness.By self-centrism, I mean the cultural value that urges individualism and putting oneself first. Selfishness embraces this value and works in opposition to caring for others.
Social disconnect.We can come in contact with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people and never know any of them. It becomes much easier to disregard others if we have little connection to them. We might think social networking has helped to solve this by giving us instant access to hundreds of “friends,” but the electronic distancing makes it easier to provide minimal contact and present a fictitious persona.
Stepping out of our comfort zone.We like the secure and familiar while demonstrating compassion often forces us to step into uncomfortable territory.
Indifference and apathy.Indifference and apathy are on the rise. If you don’t care much about anything, why would you care about someone?
Fear and anxiety. Some helping situations come with increased personal risk. This raises our anxiety. The news media thrives on creating a strong emotional response, especially feelings of fear and anger. Fear makes us less inclined to help others.
Desensitization.While I like to stay informed about what’s happening nationally and locally, I don’t like watching the television news to do it. Why not? Because when I’m passively exposed to a rapid-fire series of traumatic events upon which I take no action. I find myself becoming less sensitive to the human suffering.
Viewing violent media of any kind has been shown to lead to more aggressive behavior. We lose sensitivity to the violence portrayed.
Normalizing an ethos of violence.In recent years, we have seen increasing acceptance of the verbal assault on others by celebrities, politicians, and other media figures. Regardless of the alleged faults of the object of the attack, I believe the use of sarcasm, demeaning caricatures, name-calling, and profanity not only builds a culture of violence but simultaneously reduces our compassion for others.
Turning the Tide
If our culture is pushing us away from love and compassion, what can we do about it?
Take a self-inventory.
Go through the list of “compassion-busters” and reflect on the influence these might have on your life. There are more factors at play than what I listed. Perhaps you can identify something else that is shrinking your compassion?
Regularly do something to help others in need.
Loving others should be our way of life, not just participation in a program. On the other hand, regular participation helps us to recalibrate and improves our sensitivity to others’ struggles. It also serves as an example to those around us, particularly to our children.
Treat yourself with compassion.
We are often our harshest critic. What do you do when you make a mistake, or someone hurts you? Do you treat yourself with the same compassion you would show someone else?
By margin, I mean making sure not every moment of your life is filled with a planned activity or responsibility. Having margin makes it easier for us to drop what we’re doing at the moment.
Get to know people through face-to-face contact.
Much of your communication may still be through media, but we should strive to overcome the barriers that allow us to treat people like objects. It’s easy to misread emotions in texts and emails, and we can’t even begin to pick up on nonverbal messages.
Live on the “edge.”
Push the limits of your comfort zone. I don’t mean taking physical risks like skydiving but pushing the bar of how we live and behave as disciples of Jesus. Be sensitive to the movements of the Holy Spirit who urges to become like Jesus.
Move from “passive-viewer” to “active-participant.”
Consider what effect your media exposure is having on you. Don’t listen to people who directly or indirectly promote violence, and especially don’t imitate them. When you watch news programs, ask yourself what you can and should do to help the people featured in the news segment. Even if you cannot offer any material support, pray for them and their situation.
Be a “George.”
“Let George do it” means to let someone else do it. Decide to be that “someone else” and step up when you see someone in need.
Pray and discern.
It’s true that we can’t do everything, and if we try to live without boundaries, we’ll probably do ourselves harm. But if we can’t do everything, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. Sometimes we have to act at the moment and figure out what we did later. We should pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us. He will help us set the right boundaries and keep us from doing what we are not meant to do.
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It’s impossible to have compassion for someone and be bent on hurting them at the same time. Parents should desire that their children imitate Jesus and live compassionately. Perhaps it is too much to expect a majority of people to embrace compassion, but every person who does changes themselves and the world.
Live with Compassion is part of a series on practices that promote spiritual and psychological health.