Real Mission: I'm Right There with You
I used to think that the pinnacle of caring was empathy. Since birth I have displayed classic “empath” qualities. If a friend skinned their knee, I was there crying too. If my sister broke her toy, I was there to give her a hug. If a neighbor kid was grounded, I was indignant about how the punishment didn’t fit the crime. I used to think that identifying with the suffering of others was the peak of understanding. That is, until I discovered compassion.
Compassion is different than empathy in that it not only witnesses to the suffering of others, but it acknowledges the interconnected nature of our being and calls us to suffer with those who are suffering. Compassion does not allow us to merely observe suffering. It calls us to confess that we ourselves are less whole when someone else is suffering.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. -1 Corinthians 12:12 & 26
One of the most misleading indicators of “success” in our society is the misinformed accolade of independence. From a very young age, you were probably taught that YOU were the most important person in the whole wide world. That YOU had to look out for YOU and that as long as YOU were good, it was all good. Jesus teaches us differently. He says that we are bound to one another, that we depend upon one another, that our suffering impacts others and that our joy is felt by the community. Jesus shows us that empathy is a helpful form of engagement, but that compassion is the goal.
Compassion, at its root means to “suffer with.” It expects engagement and implores us not only to recognize suffering, but to do something about it. Compassion calls us to acknowledge that we cannot be free if others are imprisoned by poverty, starvation, isolation, and judgement.
Years ago, when I worked at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in D.C. I spent most of my time with men, women, and children who were experiencing homelessness. Some two-hundred parishioners of our 8am congregation were, at that time, experiencing life without permanent supportive shelter and great suffering often accompanied them as they were made vulnerable to: theft, physical violence, hunger, and elemental exposure to both dehydrating heatwaves and below freezing snow storms.
Many downtown professionals who passed these saints on the street corners were quick to assume the many reasons why someone was left homeless. They have a drug problem (unlike my teenage son). They drink too much (unlike the housewife who lives next door). They hate their family (unlike the feud with my brother-in-law). And my personal favorite: they must have done something awful to deserve this life. My God, if we all got what we deserved, few of us would be enjoying the comforts in which we relish daily.
If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, O LORD, who could stand? -Psalm 130
What I found in my roughly four years at Epiphany was that individuals experiencing homelessness were greatly misunderstood. Most people passing by viewed a lack of housing as a personal problem, but the truth was, as is, that homelessness is a symptom of a suffering society.
A community that has become comfortable with the idea that some will not have a safe place to lay their head tonight is a broken community, and until we can find a way to acknowledge this suffering with compassion, we will remain fractured and in need of healing.
Our nurtured expression toward individualism feeds the narrative of independence from others who are experiencing suffering. It’s their problem. This is happening to them. Nothing like that could happen to me. We tell ourselves this story to keep from experiencing suffering, but without knowledge of hardship, we maintain a broken system that keeps suffering separate from flourishing. That is, until it happens to you.
While living in D.C. I befriended a man whose life tells the story of this great chasm. James was a successful attorney in D.C. He went to NYU Law School, worked for a big firm, had a wife, two kids, a Mercedes, a speed boat, a white picket fence, and a golden retriever. He was crushing life. Winning. He even made a substantial sum on the side in real estate financing. Uncommunicated difficulties in his marriage led to infidelity which led to divorce and a deep feeling of isolation, which no number of happy hours could fulfill, and no number of drinks could numb. James became depressed and started to take on bad habits surrounding food, and drink, and gambling. With his work to distract him, he kept the vices at bay, and used them only as a temporary coping mechanism.
Then 2008 hit and his bubble burst. He lost his side hustle and his house on the lake and the boat. His depression worsened and it began to affect his work. Within months he had lost his job and had little motivation to find new work save for the ever-present alimony bill that came due on the 15th of every month.
He found temp. work at several firms in the district, but his finances dwindled quickly with unreliable income in an incredibly expensive housing market. Soon he found himself living in a tiny apartment on E. Capitol Street and he traded in the luxury vehicle for a Metro Card. Looking back, he is still amazed at how it all happened so quickly. In two years, he went from having it all to losing it all, but worst of all, he said, was that he lost his will to live, to thrive, to believe in his own belovedness.
I met James in the garden outside my office window where we shared lunch on a regular basis. He was an extremely intelligent individual looking for purpose, searching for community, yearning for compassion.
“I never thought this could happen to me,” he told me once under the shade of an old elm tree. Empathy was far from his purview when things were going great, and compassion wasn’t even on the table; pity, maybe, but a true understanding of suffering with those who were suffering was beyond his scope of understanding.
“I’m learning,” he told me “learning how to love.”
Compassion, it turns out, is not something easily understood by those who have scarcely suffered. But it is even more rare among those that do not acknowledge that their neighbor’s suffering is truly their own.
United, we will thrive; in togetherness we will feel the joy and the wounds of our neighbor. Together, we can heal hurt and conquer despair. But alone, we are nothing. Suffering can be overcome when you know that there is someone there who is willing to suffer with you.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. -Colossians 3:12-17
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