Whatever Happened to Compassion?


While in the gym the other day, I came to that point in my workout where I had to go to the back room to use a certain set of barbells. So, I walk in, and I notice that there’s only one other person there—a woman doing stretches on a yoga mat. Unfortunately, she’s set up like three feet in front of the rack that holds the barbells I need.

Immediately, I started having a conversation with myself: “Oh crap! Why didn’t she set up her yoga mat someplace more convenient? 

“Should I get the barbell, and move to a different spot, so it doesn’t look like I’m looming over her? 

“On the other hand, why should I move? I don’t intend her any harm, and, after all, she’s right where it’s most convenient for me to stand. 

“But, that doesn’t seem right. She was here first. Why should I have any claim to this spot, especially if it might appear to her that I’m a potential threat? 

“Still, it’s going to be a pain in the neck picking up the barbell and moving to another place . . . ”

Back and forth. 

I didn’t get the chance to make a decision, because moments after I picked up the barbell, she gathered her things and left.

But somehow, I felt like she probably left because she didn’t feel comfortable in such close proximity to a big, hairy guy with a barbell in his hands and nobody else around. Then I felt like a jerk. Because, do I want to live in a world where the first thing other people have to do in these situations is size me up as a threat?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The whole thing felt really wrong to me. I realized that my first instinct was to carve out my space, and make her adjust to concerns for my convenience.

What does that say about me, that my knee-jerk response was to think that my convenience was more important than hers? 

But even more depressing than that is that my knee-jerk response was about me rather than empathy for her. I’m supposed to be following Jesus, which means that my encounters with others should first be an exercise in creatively imagining the worlds they inhabit—instead of how it is that they’re bit players in my own psychodrama. Don’t I owe it to her to take some extra time to try to understand her experience—in which her knee-jerk reaction of suspicion and fear makes sense?

People like me have created a world for ourselves for our own convenience. And out of a sense of self-preservation, she has to live with fear in that world—one I get to take for granted is pretty safe. 

And it is pretty safe . . . for people like me. But not everybody can take that for granted.

Think about the images of children in cages. (FWIW, I can’t believe we’re at a place where the phrase, “children in cages.” wouldn’t need more context.) Our country is currently warehousing children in concentration camps, without adequate food, bedding, sanitation, or oversight.

And what’s the knee-jerk response by so many to this pained cry of lament?

“It’s not our fault these kids are being treated inhumanely. Blame the parents.” Which response is akin to saying, “Hey, if the parents of these children hadn’t brought them here, we wouldn’t be forced to treat them like shit.”

How does somebody think like that? How is it possible that there are a sufficient number of people incapable of empathizing with these children? With their families?

What’s the thought process?

“Hey, this is our world. And in our world, people like you have to play by rules that reinforce our belief that the world we’ve created for ourselves is fair and just for people like us—and if you have problems with that, it’s because there’s something wrong with you. You need to adjust yourselves to concerns for our convenience. If you don’t adjust, we’ll bring out the most potent weapons we have—the threat to your children and families—to make you adjust. We’re not playing here. This stuff makes us really uncomfortable, and you’ve got to stop.”

And you know what’s a damn shame? 

I hear Christians saying this stuff. 

Yeah, the people who’re supposed to love others the way Christ loved them.

The people who’re not supposed to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think.

Those people who’re supposed to “in humility regard others as better than themselves.”

Yeah, those people, the ones who follow Jesus, and who are called first to imagine the world others inhabit . . . before thinking of themselves—and their own convenience.

How can people who claim to follow Jesus hear the cries of the wounded, who’re forced to live in fear and squalor, adjusting themselves to our view of a safe and just world . . . how can we hear those cries and think only about the most effective way to drown them out—just because we find those cries inconveniently challenge the world we’ve built for ourselves, cries that plead with us to adjust ourselves to a different world than the one we’re comfortable with—to see things through someone else’s eyes?

Whatever happened to compassion?

Come on, Jesus expects more from us.