Growing Our Compassion Muscle: Old First E-pistle 01.10.14

Growing Our Compassion Muscle: Old First E-pistle 01.10.14

A couple of years ago, I preached a sermon about being grateful. I don’t remember the sermon at all, but I remember one person’s response.

I imagine I said something like, “As Christians, among other characteristics, we should be recognizable as ‘thankful people.’ Instead of taking what is ‘ours’ for granted, we should understand that whatever we have is at best provisionally possessed. And therefore, we are to be grateful for what is really always, inevitably God-given.” That’s my basic understanding of the material world around us and of our lives.

The response I remember was Bobbie Benjamin’s. She began posting on her Facebook page each day some thanksgiving. It was her personal discipline– to take the time and effort to identify and share what she was thankful for.

That was before such habit became more common. I don’t think we can claim to be the origin of that more popular practice, and I think I remember Bobbie worrying that her professions of gratitude did not feel quite as meaningful to her when they could be mistaken as part of a trend.

But I suspect there is a great effect to such personal discipline, whether it is a solitary or popular, a private or public pursuit. It develops our gratitude reflex.

This week’s confession begins “Compassion doesn’t come easy…” I’ve been wondering if there is something I could do to exercise and strengthen my own personal practice of compassion — towards others and towards myself. That’s what got me remembering Bobbie’s discipline of gratitude.

First a word about “compassion.” It’s often confused with “pity,” and as such devalued to connote something soft and sentimental: the benevolent feeling a superior can have towards someone who is inferior. The position of someone who is well put together towards someone whose life is in shambles.

But compassion isn’t about feeling sorry for someone. Instead, our contemporary English word derives from the Greek pathein and the Latin patiri, and means “to suffer or undergo alongside of.” It is about enduring something WITH someone else. To put oneself in another’s shoes. Feeling someone’s pain as if it is one’s own.

Is there some way to exercise one’s compassion muscle? To be sure, first, one must let oneself risk feeling. But in order to feel, one has to recognize the other and his or her struggle or predicament. And finally, once identified, one has to experience some empathy-flow that carries oneself toward the other person.

I wonder, if I were to be intentional daily – identifying someone with whom I find it hard to have compassion, but trying nonetheless to achieve some empathic movement, and sticking with my effort, or with the person him or herself, at least emotionally, even if the going gets tough — would I get better at it?

Would it become easier, both to recognize who I find it hard to empathize with, and then, well, to be more empathic?

“Practice makes perfect” we are promised, but I’d feel better, long shy of ‘perfect,’ if compassion were higher on the list of my go-to options. Could it become an almost reflexive possibility, even if I still struggle and fall short of the mark some times?

That’s my plan. Each day, I’m going to try and think of one person I might find it difficult to feel compassion for. And having recognized my problem (not theirs!), I’m going to see if I can stretch myself towards them.

Ok, this probably shouldn’t be a public exercise! No Facebook posts. Just my own private spiritual exercise.

I guess this is confessional, but, I believe, I have quite a list:

Public figures—like Dennis Rodman visiting North Korea or Gov. Christie’s staff member closing down lanes on the GW Bridge or Ted Cruz and his brazen arrogance.

People I know personally: the neighbor lady at the corner of 17th and Cambridge who keeps calling the police on me, the “friend” who talks bad about me behind my back, the colleague who suggests the UCC and its gay folk aren’t really Christian.

Others along the way. The drunk guy who cornered me today on Chestnut Street. The priveleged man who embezzled more than anyone needs. Folks who refuse to help themselves. Those who are the authors or architects of their own downfalls and failures. Or deliberately hurtful to others.

And sometimes I struggle to feel or show myself compassion too. Shouldn’t I be better, more capable, less vulnerable or fickle?

So each day, I’m going to pick someone. Most likely, some folks we get the “honor” over and over again… until I can get me right.

Once I’ve identified someone for the day, I’m going to lay off my lists — all that’s wrong or undeserving about him or her. And just try to identify WHAT and WITH… what they must be going through. A spiritual stretch. Seeing if my heart can loosen up, become more like silly putty, that both expands, can be formed in the shape of something else, can even take on something else’s image.

The people will never know that they are the focus of my trying to exercise my heart and soul. Why should they: the problem isn’t with them; it’s mine.

I might tell you later what the experience is like… Or maybe not.

See you in church,

Michael