Compassion Is…Going and Building

9 Feb


“Compassion is not a bending toward the underprivileged from a privileged position; it is not reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it in the upward pull.” – Henri Nouwen

We all know how to teach a child to use stairs.  We walk behind them, coaching them to lift one foot above the other.
And we all know how to teach a child to climb a ladder to get to a slide.  We go up the ladder behind them to catch them if they fall and to coach them on lifting one foot above the other.

We never go up ahead so they can just see us in our vast climbing experience and hopefully learn from that.

We never go up ahead and drag them behind us, pulling them by the armpits.  What does that teach them?  To be carried everywhere?  Children are already experts at that.

Going up ahead allows us to model behavior but it keeps us at a safe distance.  Walking behind someone means we are there if they fall.

On the contrary compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.” – Henri Nouwen





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I find this statement so convicting. And challenging. And true. Real compassion (the Mother Theresa type of compassion) requires investment. Is there any greater investment than moving your life, your family, your possessions to a place of suffering?

Building a Home. There.

On a practical level, building a home there means…settling in.  Getting comfortable with sorrow and grief. It sucks. But its the best way to reach out to someone.

No one likes living out of a hotel room. It’s not a home. “Settling in” means unpacking a single suitcase, tossing some toiletries in the bathroom, and then leaving. I’ve been there and done that with people.  A quick hug, a word of encouragement, then I’m gone to explore more interesting sites. Drive-by compassion isn’t what changes lives.

“Settling in” to a home means staking a claim: putting toilet paper in the bathrooms and hanging pictures on the walls and unpacking boxes and searching out every nook and cranny. It’s inviting people in and letting them know “I am here to stay.”  It may not be permanent for a lifetime but it is permanent for the present. You have an address, you can be found, if the house is a mess, at least it is your mess.

Going and building involves action – movement – getting dirty. That much investment speaks loudly to those you seek to help. This is not just a hug at a funeral or a casserole on a kitchen counter (although both are the least one should do). It’s a radical statement that “I am here to stay.”  I respect your grief, I respect your situation, I respect your struggle.  I may not be able to fix it all, but I am here with you – in this foxhole, on this couch, during this period – and I am willing to settle in and stay for however long I am needed. This is not a “I have a reservation and I need to leave by noon unless I can get a late checkout” but an “I am permanently checked in for however long you need/want/can stand me.”

I have personally experienced someone coming directly to me in my suffering and choosing to build a home here. How can I do any less?








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