Monday, August 28, 2017

Hurricane Compassion

- At the Desert Retreat House -

Hurricane Harvey has been one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the coast of the United States. Thousands of people have suffered from its catastrophic effects - businesses, hospitals, homes and property have been destroyed and damaged, many people have been injured, many have lost their livelihoods and some have lost their lives.

After church yesterday, I overheard a conversation in which one person said to another, “I feel kinda bad for those poor people in Texas.” The other person responded, “Yeah it’s too bad, but we can be thankful that we live out here. It may be hot, but at least we are dry.” Somehow, that comment really caught me “off guard,” it seemed like such a tepid and maybe even a selfish response to such a devastating catastrophe, especially since the comment was made right after a church service.

That comment yesterday made me wonder how many people who don’t live in Texas may be feeling “kinda sorry” for the people who were hit by the hurricane but are thankful that they weren’t affected by it?

Today as I watched the horrific pictures of all those many people suffering in Texas, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems by John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

Because we are all interconnected with one another, because we are all “involved in all humankind,” the suffering of the people in Texas is “my” suffering, it is “our” suffering, regardless of where we may live. An awareness of this truth elicits a sense of deep compassion.

When it comes to “spirituality,” the word compassion is used a lot nowadays. In fact, it’s almost impossible to read a book or article about religion or spirituality without somehow coming across that word, compassion. The great teachers like Jesus or Buddha were icons of compassion. The core teaching of most major world religions is compassion and everyone in almost every tradition is told that compassion must be the guiding principle for walking on the spiritual path. The problem is that, at times, when people use the word compassion, it is often used far differently from what genuine compassion is really all about.

Compassion is sometimes defined as sympathy, as pity, feeling sorry for someone who may be in pain (feeling sorry for people affected by a devastating hurricane). At other times, the practice of compassion means just being “nice” to others.  I actually think genuine compassion goes far deeper than feeling sorry for someone or “being nice” to others.

In order to get at what “compassion” might really mean, I look at the many Gospel accounts in which Jesus is described as “having compassion” for various people. He has compassion for sick people and sad people, he has compassion for rich people and poor people, he has compassion for the crowds of lonely people wandering through life without direction.

In the Christian scriptures,  the word for “compassion” has a far richer meaning than the English word. The Greek word for “compassion” is “splaxna,” which comes from the word for “entrails” or “bowels” – the deepest core of a person. And so,  compassion is a deep, profound, “gut level” love that flows from the very innermost core of one’s being – a far cry from feeling “kinda” sorry or being nice to someone.

Author and poet, Chris Wiman offers this beautiful insight into what compassion is really all about:

Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves.

Today, as I look at all those devastating pictures of so many thousands of people who have been “broken” by a Texas hurricane, their “suffering flares in my nerves.” Their suffering is my suffering and I don’t feel sorry for them. I suffer with them.

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