By Chaplain Resident Kelsey Lewis
Compassion is a primary inner strength humans are capable of having and expressing towards others. The value of this inner strength has been particularly magnified over the last eight months because of mass suffering across the globe. Have compassion. Be compassionate. Commands such as these are easily said, but how does one experience compassion?
I remember receiving birthday invitations in the mail as a kid. The real trend of the mid 90s was to send out jazzy card stock with the ‘who, what, when, where, why’ details written out on the front. It was a more fun way to say that Courtney was having a bowling birthday party next Saturday. In high school, my favorite class was Etymology: the study of the origin of a word. It was a class that helped me understand the ‘who, what, when, where, why’ of a word.
This is obvious, but words are basically just condensed descriptions of meanings and actions. What a word says is not always exactly the same as how a word is defined. When I look further into the etymology of compassion, I understand that it is not just a word describing an act to be sympathetic towards others. It is an invitation to feel sorrow with others. The literal translation is “suffering with another”. I believe compassion is an emotion rooted in morality leading humans to feel that all suffering, internal or external, deserves a response of relief. In his research on inhibiting compassion, South African theologian Phil C. Zylla explains that the response of relief is a dynamic and empathetic process that works to identify, support, and alleviate the presenting pain.
Compassion, just like a relationship, is a two way street. It is a psychological resource necessary to nurture personally so you can express it to others interpersonally. One cannot outwardly express compassion without inwardly feeling compassionate. Bringing compassion to personal pain is not selfish. It is building an inner resource that can be used to support others. Presence is a fundamental element of compassion. Being understanding and understood without judgement is a way to enter into the suffering compassionately. Simply being is often an underestimated, yet powerful entity of facilitating healing. Time is the most valuable element of life we have, and giving time to endure, validate, and relieve some sense of pain with another reclaims these moments of continuous presence into compassion.
It’s easy to think that compassion is a grand gesture and doing something little won’t make a difference. I recently ordered a pair of shoes that I was really psyched about, but they never arrived. Weeks had gone by and I had tried everything with the store and filed claims with FedEx. On Saturday night, I was watching the Michigan football game and I got a text from a Georgia phone number with a photo of my missing package. It turns out that I had accidently put in the incorrect shipping address, and the shoes were delivered two blocks away. I replied right away and we organized a way for me to pick up the package. Her final text to me said, “… I’m a firm believer in karma… pass it along with you can.”
Without realizing it, the next day at work I was overtly kind to everyone I encountered. Nothing monumental happened in my day where I changed another person’s life. I just held doors longer, said thank you more often and meant it, gave up a parking spot, and made eye contact and smiled at strangers. Driving home at the end of the day I was thinking… “Today was a really good day!” but I didn’t fully know why. The compassion of the woman who helped me get my shoes back was contagious, and the idea of paying it forward sets off a chain reaction in me. Compassion is something you give, but by these acts it can become part of who you are.
This inner strength of compassion is critical to build in current times so we do not become numb to the pain we feel, or accepting the suffering of others as, simply, the way it is. Today, you are invited to feel and build compassion. Be aware and sensitive towards the pain you feel. Receive compassion as often as you offer it. Compassion is a starting point when suffering arises and builds self-worth along the journey of healing. It is caring about how you feel and wanting to do something that will make it better.