"Comfortable Compassion?"

Ron Panzer
January 15, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

Those of us who feel moved to care for those in need often find ourselves confronted with the harsh realities of this world and the perceived limitations of our own abilities. "How much can we help?" "Will it make a difference?" "What good does it really do," we ask ourselves.

When a hurricane or tsunami strikes, it is easy to think that our contribution to United Way or the Red Cross ends our obligation to share, to serve or to change. When we read about those victimized by so many situations in life, how do we respond? How do we feel?

It is wonderful to see the outpouring of compassionate sharing by so many throughout the world. Yet, sending dollars or euros does not end the suffering of those whose lives have been torn apart. It does not end the suffering of those whose families have been literally ripped apart and who now face an unfolding life that is alien to everything known before. The living face a daily confrontation with the loss of those loved ones who just a moment before were here with them.

Donations only begin a process of healing that may or may not ever occur. Real healing of the bereaved comes with time, understanding and love shared by people directly interacting with those reeling from the drastic devastation that suddenly has swept into their lives.

Within the constraints of our daily lives, the routines that guide us along well-worn daily paths, our choices are influenced not so much by what we need, but what we think we need. Our choices are guided and limited by the pattern of life we choose day after day. And, there is a difference between what we need and that which we think we need!

How many of us choose our path according to what others need?

The Lord walked among us without concern that provisions for Himself be made. He trusted. He exhorted us to not even think about our needs, trusting fully in God the Father. Yet, our disbelief that God will provide for us is revealed, made glaringly clear, by our nagging worry.

If we worry, we cannot be trusting. Worry and trust are mutually exclusive. Trust brings peace of mind and clarity, while worry brings confusion, indecision and anxiety. Yet, how easy it is for us to slip back into the rut of worrying about the mundane even though we are blessed in so many ways.

How many of us never succumb to worrying about how the next bill will be paid, how successful we may be, what others will think about us or what will happen next year, or the next? Do we worry about our children and loved ones? Of course we do, and it is completely natural.

But when we look at the shocking suffering that actually permeates this world, on every continent, do we worry for the others who are not known to us? Does our heart go out to them? Do we pray for them? Do we truly understand what they may be going through?

Turning our backs on the needy is certainly not the way. On the other hand, sending our financial support to assist the needy brings real, immediate help to those reaching out for our support.

What about those who actually go to the devastated regions? What about those who jump in feet first and get involved in the work of directly helping those in need? What does that do to, and do for, the workers in the field? They are forever changed. Something happens to those who plunge into the work, seeking a greater reward from above. Many of us send dollars or euros. ... our donations are certainly praiseworthy and needed.

How many of us send ourselves?

Jesus came to us and set the example of serving even the lowliest of the low. Where do we stand in the lineup when judged by the promptings of our own hearts? How many of us are willing to disrupt the comfortable routine of our lives in order to "send ourselves" into the midst of the work? Like those who rushed into the Twin Towers on 9/11 to save others trapped within? Like those who risk their own lives to serve others?

Is our compassion comfortable? Is the pull of our heart, the quiet whispers of the Spirit, reflected in our daily acts? Do we dare act on the challenges presented to us from within? Or do we ignore that still, quiet voice and turn away, back to our busy, preoccupied lives? I know that I have done so too many times.

"Comfortable compassion." Is real compassion ever really "comfortable?" If we are truly "compassionate" aren't we crossing over into a new frontier? Aren't we living in a way that we may once have thought unbelievable, unattainable, or simply too "risky?"

Do we turn our back or do we act? Do we plunge in or do we suppress the call by a quick email, letter or donation? Are we deceiving ourselves? "We've done our share," we think. Now, we can get on with our lives, suppressing the constant call of a higher mission, another act, a higher demonstration of the love that wishes to more fully live within us. Slipping back into the routine; it is so easy.

"Comfortable compassion."

No, real compassion is never "comfortable." It demands commitment, sacrifice, and even real changes in our own lives. Uncomfortable compassion is what we need. Something that makes us alive. Something that makes the patterns of our lives unpredictable and ever-changing. Spontaneous.

The other day I spoke with a man whose wife had left him, yet he loved her deeply and wished to reconcile. She is not sure what she wants or whether she will return, but it was the day before his birthday. Although he hardly knew me, he began speaking about his problems for almost an hour, admitting that he didn't know why he was telling me all these things. "Listening was the least I could do," I thought. Listening with my heart.

I drove home but felt the immediate urge to send him flowers. I put it off, tried to ignore the thought, but eventually was overwhelmed by the need to do this simple, little thing. I never did that before and probably will never do it again. The next day he called to say how much the beautiful white roses touched him and gave him strength and encouragement. A small thing, but perhaps something that will remain with him, changing how he approaches his problems and help him to trust in God more and accept His peace.

I told him, "I really don't know why I sent you the flowers, except that I felt compelled to do so." There are times when we may not understand rationally what may come from these spontaneous acts. Everything within my mind said, "oh, it's not necessary!" "Why bother?" "That's crazy!" Yet, I was not at peace till I sent the flowers, and he was uplifted by such a small thing.

Our compassion need not be expensive, but if it is real, it will challenge us to pick a path other than our usual, predictable and comfortable routine. Compassion is not just a feeling. Compassion is not just a sharing of dollars. It emanates from our heartfelt love and manifests in the unexpected, bewildering yet delightful spontaneity of the Spirit guiding us along.

When we open ourselves to what we may believe to be "uncomfortable" compassion, it simply brings us peace. Our actions take on a renewed purposefulness and have a greater impact upon those we meet. We have no space to hate or despair, because we have allowed our heart to melt into loving while trusting in a power beyond our own.

Shall we dare to listen to the voice of the Spirit? Shall we do those small things that take us out of our routine? Will we find the unlikely way of touching the heart of those around us in this life?