“No greater burden can be born by an individual than to know no one cares or understands” (Arthur H. Stainback).
SUFFERING IS HARD TO BEAR EVEN UNDER THE BEST OF CIRCUMSTANCES, BUT IT IS MUCH HARDER WHEN WE MUST BEAR IT ALONE. In actual fact, we are probably never as alone as we think we are, but when the evidence suggests there is not another person anywhere who cares or understands, our isolation becomes an agony. So most of us want to show compassion to those who are suffering, especially the lonely ones, the outcasts, and the desperate.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, who certainly had the heart of a helper, made this comment: “Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or find a quick cure for it.” He was right. Authentic compassion requires far more than the condescension that the affluent often call “helping the suffering.” Jesus of Nazareth, for example, did not merely help the poor — he was poor. He did more than drive in to the ghetto from the suburbs and pretend to be concerned. He entered deeply and personally into the experience of the oppressed and downtrodden.
But there is so much suffering around us, we have to make some hard choices. As the French dramatist Jean Anouilh put it, “One cannot weep for the entire world. It is beyond human strength. One must choose.” And Thomas Fuller’s caution is appropriate, “Sacrifice not thy heart upon every altar.” Rather than trying to help humanity, we’d do better to sharpen the focus of our compassion more specifically.
The great challenge, however, is for us to translate our feelings of compassion into actions of mercy. There may be some hardhearted individuals here and there who don’t give a hoot about anybody but themselves, but most of us, I think, are moved by compassionate feelings. We do love our neighbors, to some extent. But feelings must be urged into action. Compassion must actually bathe the fevered brow.
“The measure of love is compassion; the measure of compassion is kindness” (Anonymous).