For the past four years, I have prayed daily for compassion within our nation’s leadership. So it’s high time I read the only Henri Nouwen book I don’t recall reading, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, co-authored in 1982 with Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison.
The copy I’m reading was my gift to my mother on Valentine’s Day, 1993, “remembering your own gracious gifts of compassion,” I wrote in it.
It’s an eye-opening experience, replete with many surprising considerations. Though I’ve written elsewhere that caring for those in need is considered by archaeologists a sign of civilization, compassion is not universally considered the highest human value. There are those who have argued that a compassionate society impinges on the “higher” value of individual freedom. Small wonder Hillary Clinton’s book It Takes a Village was problematic for some!
The authors interviewed many people and many communities to prepare for writing Compassion. Of particular interest to me was their conversation about compassion in politics with the late U.S. Senator and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a progressive of his time:
Senator Humphrey walked back to his desk, picked up a long pencil with a small eraser at its end, and said in his famous high-pitched voice: “Gentlemen, look at this pencil. Just as the eraser is only a very small part of this pencil and is used only when you make a mistake, so compassion is only called upon when things get out of hand. The main part of life is competition; only the eraser is compassion. It is sad to say, gentlemen, but in politics compassion is just part of the competition.”
The authors observe, “Compassion erases the mistakes of life… To be compassionate then means to be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition.”
Compassion is neither our central concern nor our primary stance in life. What we really desire is to make it in life, to get ahead, to be first, to be different. We want to forge our identities by carving out for ourselves niches in life where we can maintain a safe distance from others. We do not aspire to suffer with others.
Is this the basis of “white grievance”? Do some straight white males see themselves diminished by the ascendance of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color? For the life of me, I can’t work up compassion for those who oppose rights and opportunities for those who have been marginalized. But I can understand those who feel they have been left out of the system because I was for so long as a gay man. Yet perception is not always reality. Leaders who play up that perception to gain power are not honest brokers. They are mistreating the same people they claim to empower.
“Must we simply recognize that we are more competitive than compassionate and try to make the best of it…?” the Catholic Christian authors ask in their introduction. “This book says No…” and then quotes Jesus in Luke 6:36: “Be compassionate as your [God] is compassionate.”
The authors don’t use the terms, but the call of Jesus is counter-cultural and revolutionary: “it is a call that goes right against the grain; that turns us completely around and requires a total conversion of heart and mind. … God’s own compassion constitutes the basis and source of our compassion.”
Here [in the example of Jesus] we see what compassion means. It is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position… On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.
In a time so filled with methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other. We have lost this gift because we have been led to believe that presence must be useful.
But what really counts is that in moments of pain and suffering someone stays with us.