The other night, a local TV news show featured a family whose home had been broken into, not once but twice.
It was obvious they weren’t wealthy, and one of the items taken was an iPad used by their disabled child. The child appeared in the story. Her disability was not identified, but her appearance gave evidence of her challenges, including physical deformities.
You couldn’t watch the segment without feeling compassion. How much would homeowners insurance cover? The family belatedly invested in an alarm system but indicated they probably wouldn’t be replacing the iPad right away, even though the child used it daily.
The next evening, a follow-up story revealed that a listener had brought a new iPad to the TV station and asked that it be given to the family. The only condition: anonymity.
Those are the kind of feel-good stories that broadcasters love, but they’re a public service as well, offering a reminder that simply feeling sorry about something is one thing. Acting upon those feelings is another.
I love Scripture’s description of Jesus being “moved with compassion.” We often speak of compassion as relating to the heart — emotions “tug” at our heart.
But scholars tell us the scriptural “movement” is more profound than that, referring to a movement in the intestines, in the bowels — that’s how a Hebrew person described such a powerful feeling of “suffering with” another.
So Jesus experienced a profound, bodily sense of compassion, and his compassion moved him to act.
Most of us are compassionate people, raised by parents who felt and expressed compassion toward others. But the response to suffering varies from person to person, family to family. What makes the difference between those who act on their feelings of empathy and those who don’t? Parents play a great role in encouraging their children to become people of action.
When my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was a little girl, she and I would go to our local food bank, where I was authorized to pick up weekly supplies for a friend, a Mercy sister who was launching a small residential home for teenage girls. This nun saw a need — homeless and often cast-away teens — and with great compassion attempted to fill it. Elizabeth and I would deliver and help unload the supplies.
What a great experience — and lesson — for Elizabeth and myself. I look back and ask, Why didn’t I do more of that? When Elizabeth was 6, a sibling arrived and then another. Although that’s not an excuse, a busy mom with a household of small children has some constraints on volunteering. But the example of compassion in action was no less important for my younger children than it was for Elizabeth.
It’s one thing for children to hear their parent express empathy and compassion; it’s another thing entirely for them to hear her say, “Let’s do something about it.” St. Francis of Assisi famously encouraged us to preach the Gospel, and to use words “if necessary.” Nowhere is that truer than in parenting. Kids learn the compassion they see.
Jesus described the Samaritan who stopped by the wounded man at the side of the road as being “moved with compassion.”
Did the religious authorities who passed by on the other side of the road not see the man? Of course, they saw him. Perhaps they even felt a twinge of compassion. But they had their excuses for not meeting compassion with action. How often, I wonder, do I see someone in need and move on?