Learning to Have Compassion

Where do I begin?  When I was a kid, I would say that I wasn’t especially compassionate.  I mean, I was toward some things, I suppose.  But I was, generally, self-centered so I didn’t really notice the needs of others.  When I was 5-years old, I was completely oblivious to the fact that there were people in my town who didn’t have food on the table.  I had no clue that there was a whole continent filled with children just like me who were living in fear from police or other military personnel, going to bed hungry, losing their moms and dads, and who probably didn’t even have a name because they weren’t expected to live.  They were unloved and unwanted.

One of the first times I ever remember being moved with compassion was when I was 7 years old.  I remember seeing a young boy, only 9 years old or so, be punched in the stomach and he couldn’t breathe.  The person who did this to him was much bigger than we were and I was helpless to do anything about it.  I was terrified.  I was angry.  I was sad.  I’d never seen anyone do anything like that in real life before…just in the movies.  I cried silently as I sat by and did nothing.  In my heart I knew that I could never cause that kind of pain to someone else.  I could never abuse my power or strength.  I could never stand by and watch a bully.

I remember sitting in Mr. Marshall’s social studies class in 7th grade and seeing pictures of men, women, and children…nothing but skin and bones.  Eyes sunken in.  Ribs showing.  Tears in their eyes.  Bald heads.  Tattered clothes.  Shells of human beings.  Victims of Nazi Germany.  Survivors of horrible concentration camps.  My stomach churned and I wanted to cry.  I couldn’t possibly understand how anyone could allow this to happen.  I mean, I grew up watching The Sound of Music and all I knew was that these crazy Nazi’s were trying to separate the Von Trapp Family Singers and that Rolf turned into a total dufus.  I was angry.  I had seen kids pick on each other, but to torture human beings just seemed unthinkable.

Compassion, for me, was something that seemed so black and white.  I would feel compassion toward those who were in pain and who were hurt by someone else.  I would feel compassion toward victims of crime and hate and cruelty.  But I wasn’t compassionate toward those who were hurting, but more silently.  I never showed compassion toward the friend who was in a destructive relationship.  In my mind I thought, “Just stop dating him.  Why don’t you just stop?”  I was never compassionate toward those who were angry all the time.  “Just get over it.  Just let it go.  Why can’t you just get a grip?”  I would see a mother in the grocery store whose children were unruly and think, “Why can’t you just tell them to knock it off.  Discipline your children!”  I wasn’t compassionate toward those who struggled with weight challenges.  “Just eat more/less.  Just exercise.  Just be healthy.”  Just…Just…Just…

Life has a way of changing things, though, doesn’t it?  Pretty soon we find ourselves in all of those situations in which we’ve judging others.  We find ourselves in their shoes and think, “why can’t I just get this together?”  We learn that we are fallible.  We learn that situations are not always as they seem.

I remember praying quite some time ago that God would help me to see other people the way He sees them.  I had always been a pretty black and white, right and wrong, kind of thinker.  I didn’t leave room for much gray area.  Now, I still see things as pretty black and white as far as right/wrong go, but things get much more gray when I leave room for God to work in peoples’ lives individually.  I have learned that I am not someone else’s Holy Spirit.  I don’t need to tell them how wrong they are or what the Bible says about that…especially when they don’t even claim to believe in the Bible.  I have learned to be a friend.  I have turned into someone who watches people who are hurting and I cry.  I have learned to try to be more careful about passing judgement.  I have asked God to help me be more understanding, and full of grace and mercy.

As I’ve walked through the joys and challenges of marriage, I’ve learned to be more compassionate when people have marital struggles.  Through the excitement and fear and exhaustion of parenthood, I’ve learned to be more compassionate on the moms and dads who are just worn out.  I’ve learned to think, “They must be having such a bad day.  I bet they’re exhausted.”  As I encounter people who have struggled with infertility I am pained and moved to tears…when before I may have said, “Why don’t you just adopt?”  Ignorance can only be eradicated by education and experience…and it isn’t always a fun lesson.

The challenges over the last few months have been further developing compassion in me.  As I was speaking with a counselor she prayed with me about being softened and smoothed out.  Sometimes we are a bit rough around the edges…and difficulties have a way of smoothing us out.  Our trials have a way of showing us that we aren’t perfect and teach us to be more understanding of others and more loving like Christ.

I was talking to my mother-in-law on the phone.  She has had so many struggles in her life.  I often think that her life has been a big storm…one trial after the next after the next. Just when it seems she will be out of the woods, she runs into another trial.  I’ve often wondered how such a godly woman who is such a fervent pray-er could be subject to so much tribulation.  As I spoke with her she encouraged me that, while walking through a chronic illness and other pain and suffering is no fun at all, there are so many lessons she learned that she would  not have learned otherwise.  She learned that, even when she has nothing else, she remembers God’s grip on her and that encourages her.  She spoke of surrounding yourself with people who will be your “cheerleaders” and encouragers rather than those who will bring you down and judge you for what they can’t understand.  She said, “an intelligent person knows what to say. A wise person knows when to say it…and they’re not always the same person.”  It is vital to listen to wisdom, not just intelligence.  Some things can’t be solved by logic and reasoning.

My hope and prayer is that, as I tread through another trial, that I would become increasingly more compassionate.  That I would allow myself to be moved by it, as Christ was, and will reach into the world and become a “cheerleader” for those who need it most.  My prayer is that I would not focus so much on my own pain, but I would look beyond it to recognize all of the pain and suffering there is in the world…and be wiling to do something about it.  Even if it’s just something small.

I realize that there are many things to which I am still ignorant.  There are many experiences I have not yet had, and may never have.  Hopefully I will continue to recognize that I don’t know everything.  I don’t have the entire picture.  I don’t have the perfect vantage point and solution to each problem.  That, even when I’m ignorant to something, that I will be able to see that I don’t know…that I will attempt to be understanding, even when I can’t really understand.

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