Two kinds of compassion

Feb 09, 2015

There are two ways to be compassionate. From a cultural viewpoint compassion is caring about another person. It might be being with someone who is grieving and helping them through it. It might be feeding the homeless. Or visiting someone who is sick. It often comes with pity attached, feeling sorry for the other person, but also distancing ourselves emotionally from them. But our compassion usually has limitations. We’re doing what is good to do in hopes that the person will move on. The grieving widow moves on with her life. The homeless man gets a job and a place to live and is no longer homeless. The sick person gets well.

We often offer guidance to the griever or the sick person or refer the homeless man or woman to a shelter or such. We’re quick to get them to move on from the grief, to get back to normal, to get on with getting on. Often our advice is too quick, from how we think that we should react when facing the same dilemma. We don’t listen well to where the other person is, affirm their situation, admit our own hopelessness about helping them. We try not to feel their pain and want them to get over it, to move on. We don’t need any reminders of our own pain.

But so many of life’s sufferings don’t lend themselves to quick fixes. There might be things we can do for another, but there is also the emotional toll to be taken into account. It might take a lot longer to get over something emotionally than just physically. How do we count the toll on another person?

We’re a goal-oriented people and we expect everyone to move steadily towards his/her goals. If you’ve ever been a widow or a widower, or your child has died, even worse than the death of a spouse, you would know that grief lasts as long as it lasts. And that you must grieve thoroughly if you want to be able to start a new life for yourself without the one you love. And that grief is highly individual: each person goes through grief uniquely.

There’s another kind of compassion that stays as long as needed, that holds the other person with trust and confidence that he or she can work things out, that doesn’t ask them to move on too quickly, that isn’t goal oriented, that allows the other person to just be where they are. I think that people that express this kind of compassion are capable of loving like God loves us.

I’ve just finished reading a truly remarkable book, “Tattoos on the Heart” by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in Los Angeles. In story after story he shows us a compassion that is caring without directing, that works slowly, almost relentlessly on a very difficult population. And yes, at the same time, he is offering them salvation and a way out of their predicament. He first pastored a church in the worst area for gangs in the country and then started a series of companies, Homeboy Industries, to offer real employment to the homeboys and girls and a way out of their life. I wonder at how he was able to invite them to another life and yet be with them where they were. I laughed and cried through the book, but mostly saw his compassion(and that of his co-workers) that was constant and loving even when one of these young people were totally resistant to change.

I’ve experienced a similar kind of compassion when my husband, Hank, died fourteen years ago after a recurrence of cancer within a year from the date of the first diagnosis. I think that the first six months were the absolute worst, crying a lot, and never knowing when the grief would be right on the surface. I went through it knowing that I had this job of grieving to do. I would say the bulk of the grieving I’ve done was in the first two years. But even today I can be blind-sided by grief, like the time my daughter reminded me that 2013 would have been our 50th anniversary year, and I cried and cried over that.

Two people sustained me over the worst of the grief. My daughter, Jennifer, who lived in Florida while I was in California. called me twice a week for a year. And my good friend, Eugenia, invited me to dinner every Sunday night for a year. I don’t have any memory of what I said to either of them, or what they said to me, but I knew that I could talk about anything with them. They walked with me through the worst of it, holding my hand, so to speak, accompanying me, while I was grieving.

I call this God’s kind of compassion, the willingness to just be with a person in their great need. No expectations, no hurrying another to the next stage, just being with them where they are. It takes a person who is comfortable with their own pain, a person who can love no matter what is happening. It takes love, an open-handed outpouring of love.

And the person who is the recipient of this love and compassion can grieve, can take their time with healing, can stay homeless without expectation, without the pressure of someone else’s expectation that they heal fast or move on to the next stage. The recipient of love and compassion is able to relax and to fully experience their grief or resistance or denial, even, without the judgment of another or any pressure to move on. There is space and time for them to consider moving on when they are ready.

For the giver of this love and compassion it takes being present with the person, allowing them to just be, without expectation. And this is freeing for the giver as well: we don’t have to fix the person before us, only love him or her. We don’t have to push them into something they are not ready for. We can rest with them just where they are.

And isn’t this how God deals with us? Isn’t he the great lover, bringer of compassion, the one who walks along with us in our pain and suffering? The one who wants us close to him, but is willing to wait. Isn’t he the ultimate model of how to be with someone else?




Questions to ponder over the week: Have I ever experienced real compassion/love that is present to me, but not asking anything of me? Am I able to be present to others? To just be with them without judgment or expectation? If the answer to the questions is no, how would I go about incorporating true compassion into my being?


The blessing for this week: May we learn how to extend true compassion and love to those we meet. May we be totally aware of God’s compassion and love expressed in our lives every day. May we see Christ in everyone we meet, honor them, take joy in, have patience with, treat with kindness, goodness and gentleness, be faithful to and have self-control. In faith and love, Pat


If you’d like to see more of By the Waters, check these out:
–There’s a new video up on YouTube: “Jesus’ Two Great Commandments.” youtu,be/xXnQnWljpZ8
–Check out my twitter feed at
–Paste this link to my website in your browser, which features a CD of guided meditations designed to help deepen your spiritual life and a series of booklets on the Life of the Spirit.


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