I have always considered myself to be a compassionate person. Growing up as a person of faith, I was taught that it was one of the greatest virtues I could possess. Different faiths have different names for compassion. In my particular brand of Christianity, the word compassion was used on occasion, but the synonym most often used was charity. Charity is defined in our scriptures to mean the “pure love of Christ.” By that scriptural definition, I would say that charity definitely encompasses the concept of compassion.
While I usually thought of charity and compassion to be one and the same thing, I think there are important distinctions between them. Words, I think, are important. They carry meaning that can be unintended just because of what we associate with them. When I think of the word ‘charity,’ unless I am reading scriptures or sitting in church on a Sunday, I don’t typically equate it with the pure love of Christ. More often, I think of it as a gift to those who are less fortunate than I am. While this is still a very admirable thing, it lacks something that true compassion provides – a key element of the pure love of Christ that is invaluable to those who are suffering.
I love this quote by Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, from her book ‘The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times:
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
Most difficult experiences in my life have brought me more capacity for compassion. I think this is true of most people. My faith crisis stands among these difficulties as the experience that seemingly increased this capacity by leaps and bounds above any other. When a friend shared this Pema Chodron’s quote with me, I gained insight into why this could be. Prior to my faith crisis, I was focused on charity. Remember how I thought of that? A gift to those who are less fortunate than I am. I was always poised to help others who were down when I was not. What I had not been prepared to do was to “know my own darkness well” so that I could be “present with the darkness of others.”
Prior to my faith crisis, I dealt with my “darkness” very differently. I looked at it as something to be avoided through my righteousness. And when it did surface, I blamed the adversary or the "natural man" and did my best to repent and focus on doing anything I could to stop feeling the darkness. Since that time, I have learned that my ‘darkness’ is not something to be avoided. It is something to sit in and learn from. It doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong. It means I’m human. And recognizing my own humanity has created a space for a shared experience with the rest of my fellow humans and opened a treasure trove of compassion on a scale of which my ‘charity’ never dreamed.
How is compassion a process that has shown up in your life?
Jana Spangler is a life coach who specializes in supporting and mentoring others who are experiencing pain in their spiritual life and relationships. She has recently been accepted into the prestigious Living School through the Center for Action and Contemplation of Richard Rohr.