My cousin, Allyson, is in the midst of an awful fight with ovarian cancer. She’s been through five rounds of chemo, undergone multiple surgeries and taken abundant medication.
While staring death in the face, she’s also raising her three boys.
People have seen her struggle and have responded in deep kindness. Love has poured in through letters and packages and gift cards. People have brought meals, watched the kids, prayed for a miracle and even pooled their money to send Allyson and her family to Disney World.
It’s always a miracle when someone’s generosity connects with another person’s difficult reality. My family and I have experienced these miracles over and over ourselves.
But one day Allyson and I began to discuss why we’re always nicer to people when we find out they have cancer. Why is it that we wait until people are hurting to love fiercely?
While I want every great thing in the world to happen to and for Allyson and people in similarly dark circumstances, why is my compassion so limited?
The truth is I’m nicer to people when I can actually see their pain – when I can see a wheelchair, a hospital bracelet or someone who recently lost a child, for example.
When we see people in pain and recognize human suffering in others, something beautiful springs up to the surface; it’s compassion.
We’re hit with a strong drive to make things better, to repave a bumpy road, to ease the burden in any way we can. Compassion is simply our soul’s response to seeing people as God sees them.
We feel compelled to help; we sense solidarity with others in their suffering. We come to see another as someone like us – with kids, parents, a job to lose and the unknown risks of the future.
But, to be honest, I’m a little too picky about when I show compassion. I need to know you’re really suffering, and sometimes I need to know it isn’t your fault that you’re suffering before I’ll help you out.
Why can’t we bring someone a meal when they’re healthy? Why wait until someone’s in the hospital?
I don’t want my compassion to be dependent on the depth or cause of people’s pain. So why is my compassion inactive until I hear a heartbreaking story?
I think we’re often under the assumption that most of the world doesn’t really need us to love them. We assume most people aren’t overwhelmed, deeply hurting or in need of a break. This is a horribly stupid assumption.
Everyone has a story with their own triumphs and challenges. Everyone could use an occasional dinner dropped off and a break from the burdens of everyday life.
The problem isn’t that our compassion shuts on and off. The problem is we don’t see people the way God sees them. We judge by what we can see.
We see a confident “soccer mom” while God sees through the minivan to the lonely fears of a single mom. We see a secure and happy family while God sees brokenness and unbearable shame.
We all need compassionate acts of love. We all need people to speak kindly to us when we make mistakes or lay off the horn when we cut them off.
Maybe we aren’t compassionate on a more regular basis because we forget we’re in it together and that none of us has the resources we need to make it through life on our own.
Not everyone is facing devastating cancer in their 30s; by all means, we should continue creatively loving those with obvious wounds and unanswerable questions.
But we should not forget that the invisible pain of our next-door neighbor is real, too. We should try to see the people we meet at Starbucks, in the hall, at the DART station and in the inefficient checkout line at Old Navy as people desperate for compassion.
As Philo of Alexandria notably put it: “Be kind, for every person you meet is fighting a great battle.”
Compassion brings slats of light into dark corners. Compassion is the language of humanity – the active, spoken grace breaking through walls of secrecy and anguish that often goes unnoticed.
We can’t love as Jesus loves if we can’t see as Jesus sees. The more the eyes of Jesus become our eyes, the more the actions of Jesus become ours as well.
If we can learn to see people as Jesus sees them, the soul-response of compassion will get the loudest voice and inspire us to act.
If we will open our eyes, we will learn to love creatively and live compassionately.
Christina Gibson is a graduate of Truett Theological Seminary and lives in Dallas with her pastor husband and three children. She works as a fitness instructor and personal trainer and is a member of First Baptist Church of Richardson, Texas. She blogs at The Roundabout Way, where a version of this column first appeared. You can follow her on Twitter @chrismaygibson.