MUELLER: Showing compassion

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By Bob Mueller

Mayor Greg Fischer has proclaimed Louisville to be “Compassion City.” 

What a noble thing to do! For compassion is the unique human ability to care about other people, to be considerate of others and sensitive to their needs. 

We can even help people whom we do not know, people who are total strangers, thanks to one of the unique components of the human spirit – the ability to empathize. 

We can identify with people in need, and knowing how we would appreciate help, we can provide help for them. 

We generally do not have much difficulty in sharing the joy of others, but we may guard ourselves from feeling their pain. 

Years ago as an assistant pastor, I had the distressing experience of officiating at the funeral of a 2-year-old who had been accidently buried in the sandbox by his 3-year-old brother. 

The following day, I made a condolence call and found a number of family members and close friends sitting together. 

One by one, each person left the room, and I was left alone with the parents, who cried out their bitter hearts. I listened to them but could not find anything to say that might be comforting. 

The next several days the scene was repeated and I found myself in the same position.

Then I received a phone call from the father’s parents, thanking me for what I was doing for them. 

I was stunned. 

I wasn’t doing anything for them. I had not been able to think of anything to say to relieve their grief.

But eventually I got it. 

This couple’s close family and friends were so personally affected by this terrible tragedy that they could not listen to their expression of pain. 

They were suffering too much to be present to their grief. I had nothing to say, but I was able to listen, and that provided a modicum of comfort.

Sometimes we are privileged to be of actual help to people who are grieving. But even when there is nothing we can do to help people, we can feel for them and with them. That too is a form of help. 

It has been well said that, “Grief shared is grief spared.” Empathizing with people and sharing their feelings is a unique, spiritual human trait. Whether the feelings shared are joy or grief, the fulfillment of the sharing itself is a source of true happiness.

What often passes for love in modern society is very often very shallow. When two people “fall in love,” it is usually because the man sees in the woman someone he feels can provide for his physical and emotional needs, and she sees in the man someone she thinks can provide for her physical and emotional needs. 

While they each think they love the other person, it is really themselves they love. He wants his needs satisfied, and she wants her needs satisfied.

That is not what marriage vows are meant to be, and it is this misunderstanding of the marriage vows that results in disillusionment. It is understandable that a marriage may begin with physical and emotional attraction. 

However, it needs to grow and mature into something much more compatible with the dignity and uniqueness of a human being. In a compassionate marriage, each partner wants to maximize the other partner’s happiness rather than his or her own.

There are such marriages. I was fortunate to witness one – my parents’ marriage.

If compassion means relating to people by understanding them, empathizing with them, and being sensitive to their needs, then trying to control people is surely the polar opposite. Control by power is an animal trait observed in many species when one animal rises to the top and becomes a dictator before whom the other animals cower. It’s often called the pecking order.

Another terrific feature of compassion – it is contagious. That’s why I love Mayor Fischer’s challenge to all.

Being self-aware, humble, purposeful in our choices, patient and on the path to self-improvement are all important ingredients for happiness, but they are not enough. 

Unlike animals who are totally motivated by self-gratification, we human beings have the ability to look beyond our personal needs and do things for others. 

That’s compassion.


Bob Mueller is the senior director of mission and stewardship at Hosparus. To contact him or to read his previous columns, visit www.bobmueller.org. The views in this column are those of the writer.