I was listening the other day to someone talk vehemently about religious people who hold strong views with which he disagrees. This man was energized, describing those others in unequivocal terms. He was emphatic in making his points about how wrong those others are, using labels to describe them. In his passion, he had objectified the others.
In the same meeting, a woman lamented the many years of struggle with folks at her congregation who had held the parish hostage with their recalcitrant views on equality for people living what they believe are ungodly lives. Years of frustration in the parish had reached a boiling point. Now that the power had shifted from the hostage holders to the former hostages, some parishioners wanted to dismiss the hostage holders, their views, and their participation. Enough was enough.
Ironically, in this meeting focused on peacemaking, one of the conversation topics was the subject of compassion. There was musing about what compassion means to people from varying religious backgrounds. Does compassion include elements of forgiveness? What about repentance? Do people have to make amends to warrant compassion? A lot of the comments were focused on the role of the other and not on the role of the person asking the question.
As an anti-racism trainer, I often talk about my compassion for the people who have historically held the power and the privilege in society who now are having to face the sin of racism and transform their structures of power and privilege and themselves—their own attitudes, emotions, and habits—into more enlightened and just structures and beings.
It’s hard. It’s hard work, and it’s hard emotionally. There is a sense of both loss and being judged. What’s familiar cannot be supported, and what’s to be feels so new and unfamiliar that it’s disconcerting and threatening.
I have compassion for these people of power and privilege as they face their new reality. I don’t excuse them and their excesses and unjust behavior, but I do feel compassion for them.
Compassion is a lubricant in relationships that smoothes the way to understanding and loving our neighbor, when our neighbor is unlovable because she or he is unlikeable and we disagree. Compassion is trying to put on the figurative glasses of your neighbor so that you can see the world through their lenses. The world doesn’t look quite the same as through your own lenses. The light is different from another perspective, and the emotions the different view engenders feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
Remember when our mothers told us, as little kids, to “think how Susie feels about whether it’s fair or not”? It was easier said than done. We didn’t know how to do it. We often still don’t know how to do it.
Building compassion requires working on building relationships. It requires taking the time to listen to others’ stories about what their lives are like, how they grew up, where they’ve lived, how they’ve learned what they believe about the world. It requires taking the time to reveal your own stories about why you’re sensitive about certain things, who told you the things you hold as core values, who hurt you, why you fear some activities.
Compassion requires vulnerability on each person’s part in order to engage the other person fully in conversation that feels respectful and safe. Compassion requires the time to have each conversation and to have more than one conversation; for each person to be able to express herself and himself fully; and to create together the building blocks that then create strong bridges of connection.
* Desire and Intentionality
* Care and Concern for Self and Other
* Conversation and Storytelling
* Investment of Time and Passage of Time
* Vulnerability and Creation of Safe Spaces
* Commitment to the Other and to the Process