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Last week I had occasion to spend quantities of time in the waiting rooms of medical offices. During one such visit, I encountered an elderly lady who felt compelled to share her extremist political viewpoints and takeaways from propaganda media with everyone present. The assault was unprovoked and hugely uncomfortable. After all, if each of us hadn’t come to mitigate a medical problem, we wouldn’t have been there. No one was in the market for more negativity.
One brave soul politely danced around the controversy with her. I sat in unhappy silence.
When we think of compassion, we generally think of empathizing with someone cruelly stricken by misfortune. I think of the NEW YORK TIMES story about the cops who had to not only witness but process the scene of the horrific murders of Sandy Hook children, burning images of mangled little bodies into their memories forever. I think of my close friend who died of cancer trying to ensure a comfortable retirement. I think of the homeless standing at street corners, begging for money. But the lady in the waiting room reminded me that true compassion can be yet more difficult.
Traditional definitions of compassion require that we suffer together with someone, relinquishing our safe distance and releasing our defenses. We allow ourselves to become vulnerable. Modern society urges us to avoid real compassion. Instead, we substitute a version that remains superficial as it oozes caring language over the stricken other, permitting us to walk away unscathed. We figure we have too much sadness and tragedy to absorb any that doesn’t belong strictly to us. In the end, we often look away, secretly glad that we aren’t similarly afflicted with poverty, disease, etc. Surely, the victim did something to draw the tragedy in. Some go so far as to reframe the situation to suit themselves. “It never really happened.” As we are when we watch a video or film, we remain emotionally distant.
When I considered the plight of the police facing murdered children, I started thinking about the true nature of compassion and how it relates to the insensitive woman in the waiting room. I realized I felt angry, not so much at her for making my wait worse but at the forces that taught her to feel unsafe and resentful—even resentful of news of good fortune for people she had been instructed to fear. I thought how vile those manipulators are to seize optimism and community love from an old woman who doesn’t have the resources to realize she’s being used, to indoctrinate her so firmly that she finds ways to deny simple facts. She has lost her sense of security, her compass of integrity. To feel compassion for her, I need to imagine who I would be if I had never been well schooled—not merely by education but also by good people who have shared their kindness and loving outlook with me. I might not care about the living hell to which those Sandy Hook police officers were condemned by their duties—not unlike the perpetual agony of the parents left behind. I might not care about the ugly existence to which those who have been taught to embrace violence and hate as desirable must inherit.
Compassion isn’t easy to digest. “Feeling sorry for” is much simpler, but it doesn’t help us grow. It doesn’t expand our capacity for unconditional love.