C is for Compassion

It is not as if I have not written about compassion before. I have done so a couple of times in Compassion and Courage’s Friend: Compassion. However, I felt inspired to reflect on this spiritual value again for two reasons: the holiday season and the recent tragedies globally involving the deaths of children and adults. The recent tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and at the Chenpeng Village Primary School in the Henan province of China[1] have begun conversations about weapon control and addressing mental health issues domestically and globally. These are the topics most frequently addressed by the media and on social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter, surrounding these and similar tragic events in our world.

While these are important issues to address, what will facilitate the healing for those most affected by these tragedies is compassion. Compassion is a gift we can give to others, not just when people are suffering because of tragedies such as these, but year round. Compassion is one of those spiritual values and gifts cherished and held highly by every faith tradition. Jainists believe in having compassion for all life, human and non-human. Each chapter of the Quran begins with the words “In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful.” The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament refers to God as the Father of compassion. “ Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).” For Buddhists, compassion is their practice. Compassion is a spiritual gift, which binds us together regardless of our spiritual path or tradition.

Compassion does not mean taking on other’s pain and suffering, but being there for each other with them in the midst of what they are experiencing. 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?” Compassion, as several sacred writings have referred to, is not confined to humans. Compassion is that which we are asked to share with non-human forms of existence as well, such as animals, nature, and the universe.

Compassion is one gift we can give each other, which stays with us and brings immediate and long-term happiness to our lives. As the Dalai Lama once said, “I believe compassion to be one of the few things we can practice that will bring immediate and long-term happiness to our lives. I'm not talking about the short-term gratification of pleasures like sex, drugs or gambling (though I’m not knocking them), but something that will bring true and lasting happiness. The kind that sticks."[2]

Compassion is not something limited to those we love or like. Compassion should be extended to all, even those who have caused us pain. Perhaps the story I have heard which illustrates this type of compassion most powerfully has its roots in a similar incident, which occurred around 6 years ago. As some of you may recall, on the morning of October 2, 2006, a troubled milkman named Charles Carl Roberts barricaded himself inside the West Nickel Mine Amish School, in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He was armed with 3 guns, knives, and over 600 rounds of ammunition. When police attempted to intervene less than half an hour later, Roberts opened fire on 11 girls – all less than 14 years old. Five young girls died. Then he turned his weapon on himself and committed suicide. It was a dark day for the Amish community of West Nickel Mines, but it was also a dark day for Marie Roberts – the wife of the gunman --- and her two young children.

On the following Saturday, Marie experienced something truly counter-cultural while attending her husband’s funeral. That day, she and her children watched as Amish families – about half of the 75 mourners present – came and stood alongside them in the midst of their own blinding grief.

Despite the crime, which the man had perpetrated, the Amish came to mourn Charles Carl Roberts – a husband and a daddy. Bruce Porter, a fire department chaplain who attended the service, described what moved him most about the gesture: “It’s the love, the forgiveness, the heartfelt forgiveness they have toward the family. I broke down and cried seeing it displayed.” He added that Marie Roberts was also deeply touched. “She was absolutely, deeply moved by the love shown.”

How do we begin to develop compassion in our lives? We must make it a part of our daily lives, just as we do other things. Compassion is something we can think about while we are meditating, checking our emails, speaking with or listening to others, or preparing to retire for the night. We practice having empathy for others; perhaps beginning with those you know and like and then extending your empathy outwards to those you do not and even those who have caused you harm. We can work on remembering that just like us; they are trying to release themselves from suffering. We can pray for relief from that which is causing them suffering. We can perform random acts of kindness. Each of these can help us become practice being compassionate with others and ourselves.

This holiday season consider giving yourself and others the gift of compassion. As American Express suggests some things are priceless, compassion is one of them and you do not need a credit or debit card to offer it to yourself or others.


[1] Phil Vinter, (December 17, 2012). 22 children and elderly woman stabbed outside primary school by Chinese knifeman. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2248054/China-stabbing-22-children-elderly-woman-stabbed-outside-primary-school-Chinese-knifeman.html

[2] Mind Body Green. http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-2994/Dalai-Lama-Compassion-Brings-Happiness.html