Most all of us saw the images in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and then Irma: neighbor helping neighbor, first responders and every day people wading waist-deep through filthy water to rescue someone trapped by rising water, people holding each other’s hand to form a human chain and reach someone in a car in danger of being swept away. They were images of people at their best, showing compassion and kindness, even risking themselves for the sake of strangers. One young woman who was rescued said it all: “It didn’t matter what color you were, who you voted for, how much money you made, what your beliefs were, or where you came from, people just wanted to help. People actually cared what happened to you.”
The sadness of course is that it doesn’t last. In the midst of crisis people are often at their best and truly neighbor one to the other. But when the crisis passes, people revert to being less than their best selves, prejudices reassert themselves, fear and suspicion and ugliness return and divisiveness and demonization of the other rule to day once more. And the question is: Why can’t we be at our best each and every day and not just in times of crisis?
Well, actually, we can. It requires training and practice and discipline. Compassion, for example, does not come naturally. It is something that must be taught. Like other virtues, it is acquired not given. It is learned behavior. And it is learned in getting to know others, talking about what you have in common, understanding what they are going through, getting a sense of what they feel and what it’s like to be them, coming to see yourself in the faces of others. That’s the thing about a crisis like Harvey or Irma: people are all in the same situation, experience the same fear and panic, feel the same helplessness and grief, and for a moment no one is different and nothing divides one from the other and you realize that could be you or your child or your elderly mother in that car or stranded on that roof. For a moment people need each other if they are to survive, need to help each other. And what is felt is compassion and it brings out our better selves.
And something else about compassion: it is best learned through face to face conversations rather than communicating via social media, according to various studies. Face to face, we come to know others as they are and not as they present themselves on this site or that. We see their eyes and facial expressions and hear the tone of their voices and listen as they form thoughts or struggle to put something the way they want. And the same is true for others getting to know us. Face to face, we come to know what each other feels and hopes and thinks — who we are and who they truly are — and as we come to better know each other, fear and suspicion subside, differences recede, cruel and unthinking judgements are harder to sustain, and understanding and compassion increase.
But it can’t stop with conversation alone. To become truly compassionate and be our best selves in that sense requires practicing kindness and thoughtfulness and consideration day after day, acting for the sake of the other. And that means intentionally thinking about other people, reminding yourself what it is like to be them and be in their situation, remembering what it is like. And that requires discipline — disciplining ourselves to actually bring others to mind, actually listen to others, not simply react but develop thoughtful and sensitive responses. It could be that we are at our best only in times of crisis because it takes so much effort to be at our best day after day, so much discipline.
But the effort is well worth it, because when we look out for the other, take care of each other, we actually feel better emotionally and physically. At least, that’s what recent research indicates. When people show compassion and kindness, the pleasure center of their brains lights up. In other words, it gives them a high. Not only that, people who help others are often healthier than those who do not and in many cases live longer.
Of course none of this should come as a surprise to believers since it’s exactly what Jesus taught and the way he calls us to follow. An author has written that Jesus commanded his disciples to love the neighbor not simply for the sake of the neighbor but for their own sake too. Something happens both to the neighbor and us. What recent research reveals is what Jesus knew 2000 years ago and what he knew was the truth that to feel good about ourselves we need to forget ourselves, forget thinking about and talking about and worrying about ourselves long enough to be there for another, be fully present to another and be of help. It is the truth that in order to find our true self, we must lose our self, lose ourselves in another in the sense of giving ourselves away for the sake of another. It is the truth that in rescuing another we ourselves are rescued, rescued from the darkness within.
Each and every day we could see more and more images of people at their best, being kind one to the other, helping each other, if more and more people would chose to learn compassion, practice kindness, and discipline themselves to make it a habit.
Or to put it another way, we could see more and more images of hope if more and more believers chose to obey the command of Christ and became the human beings Christ calls us to be.
God be with you,