This is a guest post from Robert Felix - a longtime friend of mine who is currently working on his graduate degree of Accounting from the University of Maryland. Robert is also a proud member of St. Timothy & St. Athanasius church in Arlington, VA. If you too are interested in guest posting on my blog, please visit my Guest Post guidelines for more info.
I recently saw a documentary called “Life in a Day.” It’s a film that compiled thousands of hours of footage from people around the globe going through one particular day. The film had some light-hearted moments – like when a young boy asked his dad why he was filming him and nervously veered his head out from the camera frame – but mostly, it was sobering.
It showed destitute people in Nepal, a helpless family in a hut in Egypt, a young boy carrying his wooden stand through streets till he arrived at his designated corner for his shoe shine operation. The juxtaposition of those images with a man giddily driving his Lamborghini, a teenage girl obsessing over her iPhone or a man in a restaurant watching sushi pass him by on a conveyor belt were naturally jarring. The idea that some people have so little while others (us) have a lot is a subject of which we are aware. And to see such images is heartbreaking.
I’ve always been sensitive to the issue of poverty. Whether it was seeing family members struggle, hearing about distant relatives’ hardships or reading about the plight of the poor, these issues have received my passion and thought. And so in this regard, the movie was extremely vivid but not eye-opening.
But there was another striking feature of the movie. In addition to showing people’s economic condition, it showed their emotional welfare. There were countless people who said they were afraid to die alone. There was a girl who said she didn’t think her life mattered. And then there were those intoxicating – numbing their brains with alcohol and drugs to escape.
I couldn’t help but feel sad for these people. I often hear in church about the “emptiness” of the world. And many times, I’ve heard and read that people in the world are empty and fearful. And in the abstract, it all makes sense. But I don’t know anyone like that. For better or worse, most people I interact with are like me. Sure, we all have our ups and downs but I haven’t been exposed to this kind of despair. So it was hard to be compassionate with something I didn’t relate to. Seeing people in such despair gave me a window into a whole other world.
We usually have compassion on who we know, or things in our frame of reference or that we value. For example, I was much more likely to be compassionate of a poor person than a depressed person because that’s what was more relatable to me.
St. Paul instructs us to “bear another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). I think part of that is to understand another’s burdens completely – not just the part we know or relate to. They (we all know who they are, right?) say that empathy is putting yourself in another’s shoes, to feel what they feel. So I should try to consider the difficulties of those I don’t relate to and then I can become a more considerate person.
We are now in a time of Lent. And while we can get too easily side-tracked with questions like “what is whey anyway?”, St John Chrysostom asks “Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy.”
I think a useful lesson is to recognize there are problems we don’t understand and we don’t relate to but they also need our compassion. There are issues that do not afflict us and may never but they need our attention. “For one member suffers, all suffer together and if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
We are a part of one body and if one member suffers something – even if it’s something unrelatable to me – I need to extend compassion and mercy to them.
For discussion: How do you define compassion? What are some of the obstacles to showing compassion?