Sunday, August 31, 2014

Is There a LIST of "Things-to-Do-to-Become-a-Compassionate-Human-Being"?

Lately, there have been quite a few blog posts and articles that feature lists of "what not to say" to people who are suffering, followed by brief explanations of why people can be hurt by these things even when we say them with the best of intentions. These lists often apply to "invisible" or often misunderstood afflictions: "Ten things you shouldn't say to people with Depression." "Five things you shouldn't say to people with chronic illness." "Ten things you shouldn't say to people who are grieving." Every day there seems to be something new that perhaps we've never thought about before.

I have also read blogs and comments expressing some frustration with the whole (cumulatively overwhelming) explosion of these various lists. At a certain point, it begins to seem like anything we say is going to offend someone. We end up feeling even more nervous and uncomfortable around people whose problems we don't understand. Is there anything we can say that won't offend them or increase the weight of their afflictions?

I must say that I have found reading some of these lists to be very useful. I suffer from chronic illnesses, and I know that certain points listed are valid and good for other people to know. I also have found helpful insights into types of suffering that I don't appreciate from personal experience. For example, I have no way of knowing what it feels like for a woman to have a miscarriage; so I appreciate some tips on how to offer condolences and be a friend without acting like an oaf.

This kind of awareness, however, is about more than just giving (or taking) offense. It's helpful toward learning the art of compassion. Many people want to be compassionate, and anything that contributes to their practical understanding of the suffering of others has some value. We do need to learn how to build one another up, to share one another's burdens. I think these lists can make a contribution here, even if they do tend to seem a bit constraining. It's good to combine such things with more positive information about how we can be helpful, what we can do that will make a difference.

Perhaps the thing that should be stressed above all is that these lists can never give us a guaranteed "formula" for approaching human suffering and loving another human person perfectly, without mistakes. They may help us to focus in certain ways, but true compassion is always personal, and the only way to really learn it is by giving it and receiving it within relationships with real people. Even the most basic human interactions require an awareness of the other person, an investment of one's self, an attention and a tenderness that are foundational to a relationship. There is simply no other legitimate way to approach a human person (and even though we forget this and fail constantly, we must keep trying again and again). There are no shortcuts to developing strong and deep human relationships; they must be cultivated with patience and persistence. Compassion always grows in this way, by means of a love that can't avoid taking risks and therefore must be resilient. We need to stay with one another and keep loving one another concretely even though we will always make mistakes.

Human relationships are forged through compassion, and we will never be able to make them safe and easy. We must learn, be attentive, and develop the habits of a courageous empathy, but still we will never find a foolproof set of rules or behavior patterns that will always "work." Human persons and human suffering are too particular and too profound to be resolved by any system, or penetrated by any wisdom that we may attain by ourselves.

We will always be weak; we will always fall short in love, and we will often hurt one another. A million lists won't solve this problem.

Only Jesus solves it, but He doesn't solve it by magic. He works in us through real life, with our good intentions, our weakness, our efforts to learn, our commitment to one another as persons, the investment of our time, and the forgiveness, perseverance, hope, and compassion for one another that His Spirit engenders within us.

Our hope is in Him. He gives us the strength to persevere in love, and His grace transforms us into instruments of His mercy.