When my son was in Afghanistan, my anxiety and concern compelled me to remember him and the others serving there. However, since his safe return last May, my mind and prayers were not often focused on those deployed. When I heard the news of the six American troops who died at Bagram before Christmas, I was jolted. How could I have forgotten them?
Am I destined to care only about people and events that directly affect me or resonate with my experience?
I struggle with my lack of compassion for others. And yet I believe empathy is the answer to society’s problems. Only by caring can we create a society that promotes the well-being of all people.
If I’m honest, my heart is too often hard. It’s not that I am blatantly indifferent or cruel, but I can become numb to the pain of others, whether that means walking past a homeless person or choosing not to read an article about the miserable conditions of refugee camps.
By insulating myself from the suffering of others, I am like the priest and the Levite who pass by the beaten man in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In the parable, Jesus chose a despised person as the only one to show compassion. Perhaps the Samaritan acts compassionately because he could identify with the beaten man. Despised himself, the Samaritan understood what it’s like to be treated as less than human.
Living in a society with abundant resources, in a culture celebrating achievement and acquisition, we Americans can find it challenging to be compassionate. Of course, the story we tell ourselves is that we are a most compassionate people, always willing to help others. But is that story accurate?
Could it be that as a society, we are as capable of indifference and cruelty as I am individually? Perhaps our self-interest guides us more than we admit. Perhaps we place value on some lives and not others. We establish criteria for who is and who is not deserving of compassion.
If, as a society, we are as compassionate as we like to believe we are, how do we account for the hatred and distrust currently directed toward Muslims? How do we accept the fact that a great percentage of our children lack proper nutrition and decent living conditions? How do we justify having the largest prison population of any developed nation?
I have the capacity, even the tendency, to become indifferent to suffering. I know that the only way for me to change is to acknowledge my sinfulness and open my heart to Christ’s healing love. Only then will my heart embrace the world’s suffering as Christ’s heart does.
In this year of mercy, let us individually and collectively examine how and why we lack mercy. If we are honest with ourselves, we will see we are utterly dependent on God’s mercy. By an unflinching examination of conscience and a willingness to change, motivated by compassion not self-interest, we can work to build God’s kingdom on earth.