“Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.” – Zechariah 7:9
“The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean ‘to suffer with,'” according to Henri Nouwen who many years ago co-authored a book by that very title, Compassion. “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts,” he explains, “to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
Compassion, though, does not limit our “suffering with” only to those who we commonly identify as the downtrodden — the sick, lonely, grieving, broken, poor, weak, vulnerable or powerless — the obvious. We are also called at times to be compassionate toward the less obvious, the ones who appear to have it all together — self-confident, strong, intelligent and powerful, sometimes even the arrogant — who, buried beneath their facade of being in control, also suffer, and in need of compassion.
Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol, is a great illustration in which Ebenezer Scrooge is depicted as a heartless, self-centered old miser who has no interest in being bothered by the suffering of others — the poor, the widows and orphans, or even the plight of his overworked, underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit and his special needs son Tiny Tim, the obvious among the downtrodden. But then Scrooge has an encounter with the ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley, who in his earthly life had walked in Scrooge’s shoes as a heartless old miser. Marley, bound for eternity in the chains of his transgressions, had come to warn Scrooge of his own similar destiny lest he repents.
It was not so much to condemn Scrooge that Jacob Marley appeared to him. Instead, his was a mercy mission to rescue Scrooge from the same fate. Plus, knowing Scrooge better than anyone, and having walked in the same earthly shoes, that buried beneath the facade of being mean and controlling, he too was just a suffering, lonely, vulnerable, broken human being. Yes, even old Scrooge needed some compassion. Doesn’t everyone?