2018 Reading Challenge: Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life co-authored by Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donal P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison
(The book) “Compassion” is the result of three different authors coming together to discuss the problem of suffering and work through what it means to respond to suffering in light of their Christian faith. For these three individuals this discussion essentially came down to one word, compassion, thus setting the template for this book.
For m the book came down to three central questions:
What is compassion?
What causes us to resist compassion?
How do we live compassionate lives in the face of this resistance.
What is Compassion?
Compassion is the means by which we discover a Christian responsibility towards attending to the suffering of others.
Compassion is also where we discover our resistance to this responsibility. More so, it is through compassion that a proper understanding of our human nature and the nature of God become central to our understanding of this resistance.
Compassion is rooted in this idea of “suffering with”. It is relational. It is the expectation that we are intended to do life together rather than apart.
And as we are willing to suffer with, compassion grows into the process of “emptying ourselves” so that others can be raised up.
Above all, compassion is the means by which we come to know God by allowing us to see God at work in the lives of others.
What Causes Me To Resist Compassion?
This book left me unsettled. It feels offensive to hear that I might not be a compassionate person, or at least not as compassionate as I assumed I was. To say or admit I lack compassion feels like saying “I don’t care about the suffering of others.” But there is a real difference between caring about something or someone and actually living a compassionate life.
The more I read of this book the more it became clear that compassion is most certainly not my natural response. It is something I have to fight for and protect against and work at. The book uncovered the inconsistencies in my own story, between who I believed myself to be and how I live in the day to day. If compassion is rooted in this idea of “suffering with”, the thing that directly opposes this way of understanding compassion is competition, or the competitive spirit. At which point I needed to remind myself, it is not my desire for compassion that is lacking, the real issue is my inability to overcome that spirit of competition that seems to rule more of my life than I care to admit.
The interesting thing about competition is that it tends to be seen primarily in linear or progressive terms. It is about earning our way up the ladder. It is about challenging ourselves to achieve the goals we set in order to get a step ahead. It follows an incessant upwards trajectory. What I failed to recognize is that competition can also be seen in a downward trajectory. Competition is my personal struggle with self worth. It is my inability to see my own self worth when I look at the lives of others. Competition is thinking I am not quite good enough to actually make a difference in this world because so many are doing it far better than I ever could.
In both cases there is a common trait- the focus is on me and where I stand (or sit, or lie stagnant) in relationship to the world around me. In contrast, if compassion is the process of “emptying ourselves” so that others can be raised up, the book insists this can only happen without regard or concern for where I stand in relationship to the world around me. And for the authors this is what lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel. It is Christ who compels us to empty ourselves. It is Christ who models for us what it means to “suffer with”, and in doing so shows us the true heart of a compassionate God. Thus to live the Christian life is to follow God in the way of Christ’s compassion.
There is an interesting point in the book that suggests how we see and understand Jesus goes a long way in determining the freedom we have as Christians to live into our responsibility to attend to the suffering of others. When we see Jesus wrongly our Christian lives tend to devolve into a spirit of competition, a spirit that fights back against our ability to see others above ourselves. When we see Jesus rightly it opens up our eyes to see others before ourselves, precisely because this is what Jesus has modelled for us.
And even if you are not religious, this same idea can be applied to the ways in which we view the world, others and yes, even ourselves. Which reveals a paradox of sorts, as it is actually compassion itself that opens us up to right perspective and thus frees us up to live compassionately.
To this end the book then moves to establish compassion as an act of “obedience”. The nature of our responsibility is that each of us has an obligation towards the compassionate life. The problem is that the idea of obedience is easily corrupted. As the authors suggest, “There is always the creeping danger that even our servant hood is a subtle form of manipulation (p33).” I think one of the primary ways servant hood becomes corrupted (or co-opted) is when we see obedience as a duty rather than a necessary response to a right relationship with God, the world and others. Duty only forms when we feel we must do something in order achieve, appease or prove something to someone or something, which sets our relationship to God, the world and others in direct competition, which is our human nature. Recognizing this can awaken us to ways we can fight back against this nature by protecting against wrong ways of thinking about God, others and the world, which sees God as compassionate rather than hateful. which sees God has loving rather than angry, which sees the world as grace filled rather than evil, which sees others as our neighbours rather than our enemies.
But this is not easy to do, especially when the competitive spirit that lives in me is not so easily recognizable in its downward trajectory. And if I am completely honest this is where much of my struggle with this book really came bubbling to the surface. For every new point this book was making, I found myself loading up with more and more questions:
What is it that obligates me to live the compassionate life?
How do I know I am living a compassionate life?
How do I know I have done enough to be considered compassionate?
Where do I even begin to live a compassionate life when the world around me feels so competitive and where I am continually under the shadow of someone or something else?
How can I be compassionate when there are so many others doing it far better than I ever could?
How can I show compassion when it is so hard to find places to give to?
How do I know I am truly making a difference?
The biggest reason I have these questions is because when I strive after compassion I end up feeling defeated, rejected, isolated, useless, not good enough, and more less like giving up rather than fighting a losing battle. There are days when I honestly have the best intentions, but the world around me is far too competitive to even begin to find a place to serve in a way that proves meaningful or important.
Here’s the thing about all of these questions though. They all cater to the competitive spirit. The reason I feel so defeated when it comes to living the compassionate life, even on my best days, is because all of my questions have to do with where I fit in relationship to the world around me, which is the very definition of what competition is. And perhaps the toughest part of all of this was realizing just how much of this way of thinking has followed me for most of my life, at Church, in school, in my jobs, in my relationships. I continue to believe that my worth comes from what I have to give, and that what I have to give is not nearly good enough when I compare it to the work I see others doing every single day.
How Do We Live Compassionate Lives in the Face of This Resistance.
And yet I have a responsibility, an obligation. And by God’s grace I also have the desire. So where does one begin with living the compassionate life, and how can compassion ultimately be measured differently?
The book suggests that it begins here.
“The movement toward compassion always starts by gaining distance from the world that wants to make us objects of interest.”
As I mentioned, all of my questions had to do with me and what I need to do to know that I am being compassionate. It was a checklist based on this false idea that I am the object of interest. It was about my need to know I am valuable in this world. And so I needed to begin by gaining distance from this way of thinking, and one way to do this was to get rid of the checklist. I threw it in the figurative garbage.
If you have ever forced yourself to do something of this nature you know how unsettling it feels. It’s disconcerting. It makes me feel out of control. It makes me feel useless. It makes you feel naked and directionless. And I have to fight with myself not to immediately go and retrieve it out of the figurative garbage.
It is no mistake then that what follows in the book is the authors call to practice patience. The art of learning what it means to wait and to listen by filling that space once occupied by my checklist with the discipline of prayer. The authors choose prayer because prayer is primarily an act of listening, and listening changes our perspective of God, others and the world. The word discipline connotes an act of revealing rather than conquering (or the competitive spirit), and thus it needs to time to reform our hearts.
And what is really interesting about this process is just how immediately aware one becomes of these wrong ways of thinking about God, the world, others and ourselves. And given that as Christians we begin with our understanding of who God is, this can be one of the more difficult thoughts to dispose of.
“We are poor listeners because we are afraid that there is something other than love in God. This is not so strange (because) often we see love surrounded by limitations and conditions.”
This is also why the Christian life is referred to as discipleship. Discipleship as “discipline” is the idea of “unveiling what has been covered.” And what has been covered in our relationship to God is the “gift” of compassion (p88). Compassion is not something we earn or accomplish, rather it is a heart that is given to us as a result of this patient waiting. A gift that comes from God’s compassionate response to us. As I pray and listen, I look for opportunities to express gratitude and joy for the ways this gift has been revealed in my own life, and as I find these places of gratitude and joy it is given the chance to break down the skeptical and cynical nature of my many questions. The power of gratitude and joy is that it pushes me to consider what others do not have and what I have to give from my own abundance regardless of where I stand in relationship to the world. When I know where I stand in relationship to God, it frees me from the needing to measure up to anything else.
Which brings me to community. Because compassion only happens when we are in relationship with others. As the writers remind us, lest we forget, “Compassion is not an individual character trait, a personal attitude, or a special talent, but a way of living together.” P47 But the truth is, community is risky. In fact, it might be the most risky part of all. This where we becomes revealed to others. This is where we become exposed for who we really are. This is where the competitive spirit has the greatest opportunity to rear its ugly head.
But this is also where we have the chance to both love and be loved. It pulls us out of our isolated way of being and thinking and pushes us out into the places in which compassion can be seen and lived and cherished. And as Christians we do this because in Jesus we have communion with God. This is what allows us to move out of our isolated lives and into communion with others.
Which brings me to the final idea in the book, this idea of voluntary displacement. Displacement speaks to the presence of God in our lives and the ways in which God’s presence is calling us to follow Jesus out into the world. It carries with it a sense of movement, but it is also cyclical in nature. We are called out of the world so that we can practice patience and prayer. We are called back into the world in order to live the compassionate life. It forms us and then reforms us over and over again, all for the same intention- the compassionate life.
One of the problems the book points out though is that far too often we tend to romanticize this idea of displacement. In our desire to want to know we are being compassionate and the need to see we are actually making a difference there is this tendency that exists to want to control or dictate exactly where and how displacement should happen. I know I have a tendency to see it in go big or go home kind of terms, because what good are my feeble attempts at compassion if I am left comparing myself to others who are travelling over seas to Africa, donating thousands and thousands of dollars to great causes or building dynamic neighbourhood outreaches or being involved in changing and forming socio-political systems on a larger government level? If I can’t do those things why bother trying, right?
The book cautions us to “guard ourselves” against romanticizing voluntary displacement, because then we miss what God is actually doing both in our life and in the world around us. The authors challenge us instead to see the displacement that is already happening in the context of our lives. The call is to “identify in our lives where displacement (God’s presence) is already occurring,” as this is where God is giving us the opportunity to be compassionate. Look and listen to those gentle nudges that seem to fit with what we are already doing, with where we are right now. When we do this it protects us from the trap of needing to measure up to what others are doing. It provides us with an opportunity to respond to whatever is right in front of us, however small or big that might seem. And what follows then is the necessary question of where we might be both accepting and/or rejecting this call that is already present in our daily lives? And the answer might surprise you. I know it did for me.
“When we have discovered that our sense of self does not depend on our differences and that our self-esteem is based on a love much deeper than the praise that can be acquired by unusual performances, we can see our unique talents as gifts for others.” P77
To borrow an overused term, compassion deconstructs us and then gives us the tools by which to measure ourselves differently. And this is where the authors find the real value of their Christian faith speaking into their conversation about suffering and response. In seeing God more clearly we are able to do away with everything else that is lobbying for our attention. In Christ we recognize we are no longer left to measure up to anyone else but God, the same God who says we beloved sons and daughters of the one who made us and called us beautiful. And in knowing this we can then recognize that “the sharing of our gifts”, the compassion God has extended to us, “does not diminish our own values as persons but enhances it.” Further, “when we unmask the illusion that a person is the difference she or he makes, we can come together on the basis of our common human brokenness and our common need for healing.”
This is what allows us to be measured differently. This is what allows us to give of ourselves so that others can be raised up. Just as it does not diminish our own value as a person to give in the midst of our inadequacies, extending the compassion God has afforded us increases its value by seeing it free up others to live in the compassion God has for them. And this is something that happens not by way of a checklist, but rather a willing heart that remains open to where ever God calls us to live the compassionate heart
“We often think that service means to give something to others, to tell them how to speak, act, or behave, but now it appears that above all else, real, humble service is helping our neighbours discover that they possess great but often hidden talents that can enable them to do even more for us than we can do for them.” P79