Difficult Compassion

Are we moved to compassion only by innocent suffering? Are there limits to our capacity for compassion?

by M. Doretta Cornell, RDC

Recent news reports give us ample exercise in compassion: the Afghani community mourning the loss of 16 people shot by a U.S. soldier; stunned French families weeping where the five men and three children were shot. 

Our hearts easily reach out to these people who suffer such terrible loss.

But a commitment to living compassionately demands something more of us:  How can we extend compassion to those who cause such tragedy?  What does it mean to have compassion for someone who has committed an act of violence? 

Where does compassion end?

First of all, compassion, like forgiveness, is not founded on denying reality, especially the reality of violence. Sister Helen Prejean, best known as the author of Dead Man Walking, tells of a moment in her ministry to a man on death row. As the date for his execution approached, the man grew more and more despairing and self-hating, recognizing the horror of what he had done and identifying himself solely with that one action.

A turning point came when Sr. Helen reminded him that he was a child of God, regardless of what he had done.

The man was transfixed – he had never imagined such compassion.

The challenge for us, of course, is to find in our own hearts compassion for those who have caused the harm – not dismissing the wrong they have done or ignoring the suffering they have brought on others, but recognizing within the offending person a deeper identity: human person, created in the image of God. 

Perhaps even more difficult: to recognize this person as a human being, like me.

In my first years of teaching, in the early 1970s, our high school launched a drug prevention program. To introduce the new program, we brought a panel of speakers to a parents' meeting: an expert from a new rehab program, the Sister on the faculty who would coordinate the program, and a young woman in a gray blazer and maroon skirt like those of the school uniform. 

When the young woman introduced herself as the sister of one of our students and as a drug addict, the parents reacted explosively.  This girl looked like their daughters!  She couldn't be a drug addict! How could we deceive them so cruelly!

Of course, that was the point: drug addicts began as children or teenagers just like their own. They were not some other species or from some horribly depraved society. They came from among us. The same is true for those who commit acts of violence.

Perhaps our denial of our own capacity for violence and evil keeps us from wanting to recognize the humanity of persons who act in violent ways. To acknowledge this capacity in ourselves is not wallowing in artificial guilt—but recognizing the multiple layers of our own motivations and responses, the choices we make based on our beliefs and our desire to be a certain kind of person. 

My own desire is to live compassionately, to imitate our compassionate God by responding to everyone with compassion, to undermine violence rather than reinforcing it by my own violent actions.

Compassion, then, is a choice: we can steep ourselves in the compassion of God for us and, in turn, allow that to color our responses to others. 

This is not alway a naive or easy choice.

We have often seen the shock and grief of families when one of their members commits an act of violence.  The person they knew is suddenly revealed as having a capacity hitherto unguessed.  What pain this loss must be!  How deep, too, must be the sorrow of God for the beloved child who has rejected his or her identity as an image of the divine to choose violence!

Can we open our hearts to share the sorrow God must feel for the victims of violence, as well as for God's children who have caused that violence?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Bob Ogden March 26, 2012 at 02:03 PM
Dan, There are somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. A tiny number of those are murderers, terrorists or miscreants. Condemming an entire religion as a "death cult" based on little if any evidence is just abhorant. I'm sure we could make the same argument against Christians if we wanted and we could support our theory by citing isolated incidents of terrorism, murder and mayhem comitted in the name of Christ. Yes the Koran has violence and advocates violence in some passages but so does the Bible, yet most normal people understand that when it says something like an eye for an eye, it doesn't mean that you should gouge out someone's eye. Compassion is not weakness. In fact it takes more strength to be compassionate than it does to be vengeful. Excercise that strength and do not teach your children to hate. There is no future in that. I would venture a guess that you meet Muslims everyday in your work and travels and that you have no idea of their religion because they're just like us. Truth is, there are evil people everywher. I suspect there are even evil Antheists but they don't have meetings, so it would be rather hard to say.
Dan Seidel March 26, 2012 at 02:19 PM
Bob, I wish all people thought reasonably and were not yahoos, but there are too many - sad. I assume you have cracked open a Qu'ran, read the Hadiths, Sunnahs, checked out al-Azhar studies, read the " al-wala' w'al-bara' " stuff, compared the 5 official verisions of the Qu'ran - and have come to the conclusion that Islam does not command violent jihad until Judgment Day (the Bible does not). I think blood and guts in Bible was temporal in nature and directed towards specific enemies, historical if you will, whereas the Qu'ran makes death and destruction of all unbelievers the norm (earlier verse abrogated by later verses - the "duality" accepted in Islam - immutable btw - no reformation possible) - that conclusion is mine as well as a great many others, way more educated and steeped in this than me. So I'll teach ALL to be very very aware - that is not hate, it is understanding what can and will kill you given the opportunity. You do not open a bottle of poison and drink it because you are thirsty - you read the label and warnings and decide whether you want to die or live. PPS: the Muslim men with the zabiba will not shake hands with me - no touch an infidel!! - you get that reaction too, all the time, right? I have and do - contact makes one very very aware. I save my compassion for those I think deserve it - somethings ARE without shades of morality - there is right and wrong.
Greg Tart March 26, 2012 at 08:32 PM
I can have compassion for the drug addict; I can not have compassion for the killer in "Dead Man Walking" who executed two teenagers after raping one of them- regardless of the propaganda in the Sarandon film. I am glad he discovered his humanity then they put him to death.
Theresa Young March 29, 2012 at 11:17 PM
Doretta, Forgiveness and divine compassion are virtues that have their source in the Infinite and perhaps are found as tiny sparks in the finiteness of any human. One can only hope. I value these virtues of courage and try to practice them in my life. Thank you Doretta for these words and reflections. Terry
Susan M Greene,diGA-RDC April 01, 2012 at 07:09 PM
The words of others have been interesting to read... COMPASSION is the answer...to live this requires love...love of God and love of our neighbor ....YES!!!!


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