Thoughts on Compassion

Recently, along with thinking about culture, values and interpreting, ive been thinking on a number of levels about the subject of compassion – or more pertinently its been a subject that without deliberate intention has been hitting on me.

A few weeks ago i was asked to help out at the local high school at their philosophy day, during which i was working with one of the RE teachers and a group of 12 Year 12 pupils, the subject of the discussion, and subsequent presentation was on Compassion and in particular the . It was a lengthy discussion with some very articulate pupils in which we tried to define compassion, and understand how appropriate it would be to be intentionally  compassionate, and how signing a charter would make being compassionate any more likely.                            

The Latin word compassion means to feel deep sympathy for someone, and accompany this by action to change their circumstances.  And so it is an both a feeling/emotion, and an action, motivated by that feeling.  The situation causes an effect on us, on which causes us to want to affect the other.

One thing required to have compassion is a requirement to have less pre-judgment of the social group, (and critique how this is being fed to us) “it is impossible to be accurately perceptive of another’s inner world if you have formed an evaluative opinion of that person” (Carl Rogers 1980), so by judging someone to be different to ourselves in often a negative way, we make it more difficult to have understanding of their concerns, from their perspective. It is thus important that we use language in ways that do not judge, condemn or objectify (challenge those that do), and thus where labels, stereotypes, or prejudices disable or divide.

For example, to say something like ‘American Youth’ is an objectifying statement, as there is no such thing as an ‘American Youth’ at least not in a perjorative, collective sense, as all young people in America are by definition different, there is not one but many, and they are multi-faceted. And so to use terms like ‘at risk’ , ‘Youth’ ‘Youth Culture’ may cover generalizations, but only objectify, not specify. Each young person, in every situation, context, family and community is different.

Yet as we engage with young people in the public spaces, we do so as outsiders seeking to understand, listen, accept and validate their life experiences for what they are– often defying our stereotyping, labeling or objectifying, and in doing so show both empathy, and in action, compassion.

We go to be with young people replicating the compassion God showed the world through his communicative action; “Divine compassion is an enabling power by which the triune God shares-communicates his own life, it effects what he communicates; the saving grace and goodness of God. Gods compassion is his active affection” (Vanhoozer 2010)

As we work with young people on the streets, in the parks we create new opportunities to see them for who they really are, to meet them  where they are at, meeting them head on, in their world, as they are naturally, as individuals, individuals part of groups, and using the situation of that context and developing relationship to listen and discover a person, whole, thinking, frustrated, sensitive, creative, determined.

Being compassionate, causes us to be there in the first place, compassion to see beyond the perceived need, but to put ourselves in that moment, and yet compassion/empathy are heightened as we learn more about the shit and injustice that may have befallen a young person.  It means that we also seek to alleviate, fight wrongs and feel their pain.

As an addition, in planning a sermon for the weekend i re read the Story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, being one of the clear moments where Jesus is said to have compassion for the people, the lost sheep of Isreal, yet though it was Jesus who had compassion, it was the disciples whom he asked to feed them – encouraging apostles to feed those who were lost in the lonely places.

One thought on “Thoughts on Compassion

  1. Thanks again James for another interesting topic. I have been working through Micah 6:8 and how God tells us what we should be doing, acting justly & seeking mercy. We cannot act justly if we think or refer to another as a “lesser” person. What would God make of that if we did, would he act justly, giving us what we deserve or would he be merciful and give us what we did not deserve? Humility goes out of the window when we act outside this remit.


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