Parched for Compassion
When my wife was a medical resident, life was very intense. She worked 100 hours a week, and was chronically sleep-deprived. She was a new surgeon, feeling the impact of her decisions, actions and possible mistakes on the lives of others. There were 20 serious patient crises happening at any given moment - doctors and nurses had to work fast, prioritize and balance complicated demands, and always get everything right, because there was so much on the line. It was so, so hard to have that job.
In her early days at the hospital, one of the few consoling ideas I had was that, because everyone there was supporting the same medical effort, she was surrounded by people who understood her pain. It must be a uniquely generous and understanding community of practitioners, I thought, since everyone is working so hard together.
I actually presumed that, if everybody was sleep-deprived and stressed out by having such demanding work, people would be extra compassionate and kind to one another. Because, ‘we’re all in this together’ - doing good, changing the world and all that stuff. I mean, that would make sense, right?
Yeah, well, umm… no.
Apparently my thinking on this matter was naive to the point of absurdity.
It turns out, folks at my wife’s job did not become more compassionate the more stressed out they got. They didn’t become more patient, more willing to cut one another slack, the more days they worked 18 hours on 4 hours sleep, skipping meals and showers. Most of the time, the opposite was true.
People having a really, really hard day are more likely to be mean to each other than kind.
This phenomenon may seem totally obvious and unremarkable - you may wonder why I’d even take the time to write about it. But the thing is, I think about this dynamic constantly, because it’s an example of how our behavior and reactions to others work against what we fundamentally yearn for in our relationships.
We all want to be understood, we all want our life experiences to be appreciated by others. We want people around us to value our stories, and especially to value our hardship. And it’s a fact that the people best equipped to do so are those who have experienced similar things.
If you’re part of Alcoholics Anonymous, a moms’ group, or a cohort of combat veterans, you can attest to the unique and vital support that’s available from people who have been through what you’ve been through. People who share difficult work or life circumstances should be especially supportive and understanding of one another.
They should get it, because they’ve been there.
And yet paradoxically, there are times when the things we share in common make it harder, not easier, to understand and appreciate one another. In times of great stress and fear, we see others who suffer as we do, not as neighbors or kindred, but as threats, enemies.
When others suffer as I do, I may feel defensive, even lash out, perhaps because I’m too tired to consider the burdens of someone else. Or I’m too hurt to care about anyone’s hurt but my own. Or I’ve been terribly mistreated, and don’t want to think that I’m part of someone else’s mistreatment.
In the last year, I’ve thought a lot about two videos that gone around Facebook. They both speak to the tension between police and the communities they are commissioned to serve.
Both videos say to the world, “This is our reality. This is the truth of our lives. Please listen and know the deep love and profound fear we feel in this critical time.”
The first video was created by The Salt Project, and gives heartbreaking instructions to young black people on how to avoid being killed by the police.
The parallel between these two videos is very important. They share a common message and express it from different points of view. Each says: “My family and my community are beautiful and important, and I can’t stand the thought that my loved ones might be killed just for being who they are.”
The people in these videos share such a sacred concern, they stand on common ground sown so richly with tears and hallowed with such devotion, that surely if they knew each other, they would have to be filled with understanding and compassion for one another.
They are in a position to truly comprehend one another’s pain, and sorrow and worry. They are primed for compassion, if they choose to live into that capacity.
Unfortunately, many people believe these videos represent opposing viewpoints. In our present cultural conversation, as we grapple with the realities of racism, the discrimination and use of force by police, or the justice and injustice at work in our legal system, we are not encouraged to look for common ground, to see how the stories of one embattled and fearful group relate to the stories of another.
Heartache, a universal human experience, can be used as a bridge that fosters reconciling human connection. But in fearful times, we are tempted to use our wounds as justification for attack.
In fearful times, it is easy to let the things that should draw us together, instead facilitate our animosity toward one another.
The Gospel of John has a story of Jesus meeting a woman at a well outside a town he’s visiting. He asks the woman to give him a drink, but she hesitates, because she’s from a different tribe as Jesus, and is wary of associating with him. Jesus says he lives for and with all people, not a single group. But instead of pressing her further to give him a drink, he says that he can offer her something he calls ‘living water’.
Everyone who drinks of this well’s water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water, gushing up to eternal life. - John 4:13-14
The woman doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about, and if I’m honest, most of the time I don’t either.
She thinks of water as we all do – it is a limited resource, something that is quickly depleted and must be replenished. If it’s in short supply, it is something people will fight over. It’s hard to share when everyone’s thirsty.
We may think of the most nourishing aspects of human experience in the same way. Grace, compassion, peacefulness, generosity, kindness. These are things we need, things we hold dearly. And we think they are limited resources which we don’t expect to last. They run out.
But Jesus insists there is such a thing as water that doesn’t run out. He says he has water that becomes a spring as you drink it. A living well that grows as it is consumed, becomes more abundant as it quenches and saturates.
My guarded and worried mind doesn’t want to accept this. Yet I sense that this seemingly impossible promise speaks the power of God and the heart of faith.
In the way of Jesus, there is a miracle of provision by which the things we most need are not in short supply.
We do not need to fear giving others the things we most want to receive.
It is possible to give kindness even as you seek it, to hear others even as you wish to be heard. In fact, that's just the thing. The time we spend learning the truth of others’ stories makes it more and more likely that the truth in our own stories will be known, as well.
The Table is a community of transformation:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith