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The Meaning of Compassion

One of the books I use in a course on contemplative spirituality that I teach is by my friend and fellow Quaker, Parker Palmer.  Parker’s book, The Active Life, tries to describe what contemplative living looks like for the average person who will not join a monastery.  I like the subtitle of his book: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring.    One of the chapters I like focuses on “action, failure, and suffering.”  It is a story about an angel who wants to alleviate suffering---an angel who tries to care.           

Clearly all of us know there is suffering in our world.  No doubt many who read these inspirational pieces have known some personal suffering.  I don’t know whether suffering is necessary in life, but I am convinced it is inevitable.  Live long enough and you will suffer.  Something the angel needed to learn was sometimes suffering cannot be alleviated.  But suffering can be dealt with.  That is where care and compassion enter the picture.           

I am fascinated by a personal story Palmer shares in the chapter.  I know Palmer’s struggle with some of his own suffering.  That is why his story has a poignancy that touches me.  “In the midst of my depression I had a friend who took a different track.  Every afternoon at around four o’clock he came to me, sat me in a chair, removed my shoes, and massaged my feet.  He hardly said a word, but he was there, he was with me.  He was a lifeline for me, a link to the human community and thus to my own humanity.  He had no need to ‘fix’ me.  He knew the meaning of compassion.”          

I know things like depression are not respecters of intelligence, status, etc.   Parker Palmer is a bright, engaging and successful professional.  And yet, the demon of depression can go after him just as much as someone who has marginal intelligence, might even be disengaged and is unsuccessful.  However, the story in this case is not really about Palmer, but about his friend.  Let’s look at this story from the friend’s perspective.          

Depression is not a weekend problem.  It often lasts for a while.  So when Palmer’s friend decides to help, he is not signing on for an occasional cup of coffee.  As Palmer tells us, every late afternoon his friend would show up.  In fact, this might be the most important thing his friend did---simply show up day after day.  That shows a level of commitment and care that spoke louder than any word could speak.           

I like Palmer’s simple utterance: “he came to me.”  Is that not really the essence of care and the heart of compassion?  To go out to another?  His friend sat in a chair.  And the following sequence touches my heart.  His friend took off Parker’s shoes.  What an act of humility, compassion and service.  My mind races to the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples as they gathered that last night.  And then Jesus enjoins the disciples to wash the feet of others.           

Washing someone’s feet is not an action many of us would be willing to perform.  Feet are often forbidden territory.  Sometimes people don’t even like their own feet.  And yet there is Parker’s friend, sitting in the chair, removing the shoes and massaging his feet.  What an amazing act of hospitality and of generosity.  Perhaps that is part of the meaning of compassion---the willingness to be hospitable and generous.  Like Jesus, Palmer’s friend becomes a model of compassion.           

In one sense that is the end of the story.  The rest of it is Palmer’s interpretation.  He tells us the friend “hardly said a word.”  Often compassion is an act, not some words.  Instead of saying, “I’ll care for you,” his friend actually did.  And then comes the most profound statement from Palmer: “he was there, he was with me.”  That summarizes the action and the effect of compassion…to be there for someone.  Compassion is being with someone in need.            

It is a beautiful story.  In Palmer’s own words his friend became “a lifeline to me.”  In an almost literal sense the friend had become a kind of savior.  Palmer was not dead, but depression is a form of deadliness.  His friend offered a hope---a saving hope.  He was not there to fix Parker, but he was repeatedly there to favor him with grace, mercy, care and compassion.  All that was wrapped up in two hands massaging two feet.  How simple and, yet, how profound.          

His action of compassion link Palmer back to the human community and, especially, back to himself.  One could say compassion is a heart to heart encounter.  Like love, compassion can be given and not be depleting.  In his compassion the friend lost nothing.  I can imagine the friend even saying that he had found something.  By giving he was enriched.  That’s the meaning of compassion.

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