Several winters ago, my friend Paul and I collected some blankets to give away to a community of homeless people in downtown Nashville. When I invited another friend to join us, he scoffed.
“You’re just doing that because it makes you feel better,” he said.
I didn’t know what to say. The comment bugged me; but for some reason, I couldn’t quite shake it. Was it true? The following day, I went downtown again to find out.
While distributing blankets and clothes, I took a mental inventory of how I felt.
At first, pretty good. It was November, and people were appreciative of the blankets. When we got ready to leave, though, I glanced back to see a group of men and women huddled around a small fire.
My heart sank.
The group was full of people ranging from ages 20 to 50, all scantily clad and shivering. I didn’t feel better about myself. I felt terrible, wishing we could have done more than provide a few scraps to keep these people warm. What we had done was nowhere near enough. And that’s when it hit me.
This is the beginning of compassion: not feeling better, but feeling worse.
Because you can always do more; you can always give something extra, always meet another need. If your heart doesn’t break each time you go to places full of pain and hardship, then you’re probably doing something wrong.
The reality anyone who has done work like this will tell you is that when you expose yourself to the deep needs of the world, it feels anything but good. Compassion is messy work. It hurts.
No one ever says this. You never read it on a billboard or one of those red Salvation Army buckets outside the grocery story during Christmastime. But it’s true. Doing good sometimes feels bad.
There’s no other way to say it. If you want to get involved in helping other people because you think it will make you feel better, then you had better change career paths. Because the last thing you will feel is good.
The real road to meaning is dirty and full of jagged rocks, sprinkled with pieces of broken glass and cigarette butts. It’s long and difficult and not what you would expect. But it’s the only way.
Jesus called it the “narrow road.” John Bunyan depicted it as a violent struggle to enter paradise. Emily Dickinson wrote about in a poem:
Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed / To comprehend nectar / Requires sorest need.
Sorest need — ouch.
If we want to live lives of purpose that will make an impact on those around us, we must be willing to grow in our compassion — to let go of fear and discomfort and embrace the hard stuff.
We who are rich with respect to the rest of the world must come to grips with our own poverty, our own self-centeredness and egotism. We must allow our hearts to be broken and our safety disrupted, so that we can make things whole again.
We must fall apart before we can build up. This is the only way to redeem whatever’s been lost — we must be willing to hurt with those who are hurting so that true healing can come.
Anything else is not compassion. It may raise money for charity or impress the neighbors, but it won’t satisfy.
What do you think? What does it take to be a person of true compassion? Share in the comments.