Contemplation and action: who is my neighbor?

Humor me. It’s an old story and you’ve heard it a thousand times. Jesus has just finished telling his followers “You must love your God with all your heart, with all your soul, all your strength and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”

We call this “the Great Commandment,” and you’d think it would have been enough. But a man pipes up, a lawyer we are told, and asks the follow-up question: “And who is my neighbor?”

You can hear the disciples groaning at this point, thinking to themselves, shut the lawyer up. I imagine they settled in for a Minnesota goodbye, knowing Jesus never answered simple questions with simple answers. True to form, Jesus answers the lawyer by relating the parable of the good Samaritan:

A man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hand of bandits; they stripped him, beat him and made off, leaving him half dead. Now a priest happened to be traveling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite who came to the place saw him and passed by the other side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion.

I’d like to debunk a myth about compassion. We aren’t born compassionate. If we were born compassionate, newborn babies would all wake up at three a.m. and think, “Wow, I’m hungry, but I know mom is exhausted. I can wait till morning.” We are born inherently selfish and self-centered. When we’re infants, this is a good and necessary thing; it helps us survive.

But when we mature, we begin to understand we are not the center of the universe. We begin to notice not only our needs and feelings, but the needs and feelings of those around us.

Empathy and compassion are sometimes used interchangeably, but I believe they are different in a significant way. Empathy is our ability to walk in another’s shoes, to understand or try to understand how they might feel. Compassion adds a call to action, even if it disrupts our routine or pattern of living. This is what the Good Samaritan did. He was “moved with compassion,” and so he stopped and tended to the needs of the injured man.  He patched him up, found him shelter, and paid the innkeeper to look after him before continuing on his way.

It’s possible both the priest and the Levite felt deep empathy for the man in the ditch. They might have felt awful about the man and his circumstances. Or, they might have just walked by, failing to challenge themselves to truly consider what it must be like to be half dead in a ditch with no one willing to stop. Jesus doesn’t say whether they felt empathy or not. He’s pretty clear though, that only one of the travelers was compassionate.  Only the Samaritan recognized the needs of another and was moved to action.  A mature person of faith contemplates the needs of others and acts.

Compassion’s in short supply these days.  Many are overwhelmed by the flood of suffering presented daily through the Internet and the news.  Some suffer from compassion fatigue. Some fear the disruptive changes that may be needed when we act in compassion.  In Leadership without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz makes the case that the challenges of change can trigger disorientation and distress.  He writes that “Severe distress can make people cruel; empathy, compassion, and flexibility of mind are sacrificed to the desperate desire for order.”

So what are we to do?  The Garrison Institute offers this advice as part of their mission statement:

The greatest social challenges of our time – healing traumas, redressing existential environmental threats, building a future for our children – are also our greatest spiritual challenges.  Meeting them requires reexamining our behavior, values and worldviews, and tapping inner sources of compassion, motivation, innovation, insight, and vision.  These are all skills that can be cultivated in contemplative practice.

Austen Ivereigh, the British Jesuit and journalist, wrote:

A wise monk once told me that the two core principles of faith were gratitude and compassion.  Gratitude is the realization that all is gift, and therefore we possess nothing in, of, or by ourselves.  Compassion is the recognition that we are not the center of the world and that our fulfillment lies in the service of others. To reduce faith to a set of principles is reductionism. But to detect in all true faiths these core principles — that’s something different. That’s the basis of peaceful coexistence. 

When we are compassionate, we contemplate, love, and act. Love God. Love yourself. Love your neighbor.

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