What is compassion?  When I was in seminary, one of my professors introduced me to a book called The Quality Of Characteristics.  The author Ruth Gendler, describes compassion in the following manner.

Compassion wears Saturn’s rings on the fingers of her left hand.  She is intimate with the life force.  She understands the meaning of sacrifice.  She is not afraid to die.  There is nothing you cannot tell her.  Compassion speaks with a slight accent.  She was a vulnerable child, miserable in school, cold, shy, alert to the pain in the eyes of her sturdier classmates.  The other kids teased her about being too sentimental, and for a long time she believed them.  In ninth grade she was befriended by Courage.  Courage lent Compassion bright sweaters, explained the slang, showed her how to play volleyball, taught her you can love people and not care what they think about you.  In many ways Compassion is still the stranger, neither wonderful nor terrible, herself, utterly, always.[1]


What I love about this description of compassion is that it shows two elements of compassion.  There is the compassion that existed before she met courage and the compassion that came into being because of her friendship with courage.   Gendler describes Courage as having

roots.  She sleeps on a futon on the floor and lives close to the ground.  Courage looks you straight in the eye.  She is not impressed with powertrippers and she knows first aid.  Courage is not afraid to weep and she is not afraid to pray, even when she is not sure who she is praying to.  When Courage walks it is clear that she has made the journey from loneliness to solitude.  The people who told me she is stern were not lying, they just forgot to mention that she is kind.[2]


Compassion means to express profound feeling, passion, connection with other life. If you are compassionate, then whatever another person is experiencing, you will have room for it in your heart. We can’t always do something about what somebody is going through, but sometimes all people need is to know that somebody cares.  Compassion is about hearing people’s stories, holding their hands, walking with them in their journeys.  In our acts of compassion, we must find that balance being there for each other without taking each others pain.  As I once heard a pastor say,  "We all know that misery loves company, but if everyone joins the misery, then who will relieve the situation?”

Now for some of us, compassion may begin and end with the suffering of others. We all know people who know how to share in our pain but can't support us in our pleasure. But compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. The New Testament reminds us that in order to lead the full compassionate life means not only to "weep with those who weep" but also "rejoice with those who rejoice." The full tide of compassion comes from all the streams of feeling that flow through human existence.

Then there's that second face of compassion that Gendler introduces us to.  The face of compassion after it has met courage.  There is a wonderful Buddhist story that captures that other face of compassion: this Buddhist story concerns a certain village whose population was being destroyed by the periodic attacks of a cobra. Soon, a holy person came to the village; the plight of the people was made known to her. Immediately, she sought the snake and urged him to discontinue his destruction. The snake agreed to leave the villagers alone. Days passed, the villagers discovered the snake was no longer dangerous. The word went from person to person; "hey, the cobra does not bite anymore". Almost overnight the attitude of everyone changed. The fear of the cobra disappeared and, in its place, there developed a daring boldness. All sorts of tricks were played on the cobra; his tail was pulled, water was thrown on him, little children threw sticks and stones at him. There was no attempt to take his life by any direct means, only a great number of petty annoyances and cruelties which, when added up, rendered the snake's existence increasingly perilous. He was nearly dead when the holy woman returned to the village. With great bitterness, the cobra implored: "I did as you commanded me; I stopped striking the villagers and now see what they have done to me."

The holy woman replied, "You did not obey me fully. It is true that I told you not to bite the people, but I did not tell you to stop hissing at them."

We do not think usually of a compassionate person as one who hisses.  Many Christians forget that Jesus had those moments when he hissed.  He hissed in the temple.  He hissed at the Pharisees and Sadducees.  He even hissed at his disciples.  Jesus’ hissing came in the form of constructive critique that came because his love for humanity was so unconditional.  The compassionate person is one who cares enough, cares deeply and enduringly enough, to confront others. If you don't care about someone, you don't risk strong feelings. You flee … you drop out of the relationship. 

The compassionate person knows how and when to defy … when to retreat, when to caress and when to shove … when to scream, cry, sing … or hiss.  We are aware of the human and spiritual needs of those in our church, our community, and our world.   Because we have ears that can hear and eyes that can see we are called to be compassionate.  Loving, rejoicing, anguishing, and hissing all along the way!


[1] J Ruth Gendler, The Book of Qualities (Berkely, CA:  Harper Perennial, 1984), 23.

[2] ibid, 12.