Compassion calls us

I frequently drive past Deaconess Women’s Hospital on my way to work. As I do, a smile typically crosses my face, and I think, “That is the location of the happiest day of my life.” A little over three years ago, my daughter was born at the Women’s Hospital, and the miracle of her birth never ceases to fill me with joy.

Sometimes, after I pass the hospital, another memory of the place crosses my mind. Following my daughter’s birth, I left to get my wife a few items we forgot in the frenetic moments before delivery. Walking with my head held high in fatherly pride, I glanced to my left as I passed the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In the NICU sat another father, his posture far different from mine: His back was bent with the weight of worry and exhaustion as he stared into a tiny incubator. His face painfully betrayed that this was, decidedly, anything but the best day of his life.

Every time I pass the Women’s Hospital, I am filled with joy and gratitude, yet I know there are others who, as they take the same path, experience sadness, pain and loss. How peculiar that one location could be seen as the place of the best day of one person’s life and the saddest day of another’s. The irony of this vale of tears.

I am sometimes so caught up in my own world that I fail to recognize the experiences of others. Like that day I passed the NICU, my own well-being can blind me from the pain of others, in the same place and same time. It seems to me that more compassion is in great need today.

I used to teach young people to etymologically research words to better understand their origin and meaning. Compassion is one of those words, and it seems important to return to its Latin origins. Compassion, in a literal translation, would mean “with passion,” but “passion” in the sense of suffering, not enthralled enthusiasm. In other words, having compassion means to sit with another in their suffering, to accompany others in a time of pain.

Google Books has an interesting tool, Ngram Viewer, that will allow a particular word to be searched for usage. “Compassion” shows an interesting (and worrisome) trend: The word reached its pinnacle of usage in approximately 1805 and its low point in 1942. For those who are not fans of history, 1805 would be near the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), and 1942 is in the middle of World War II. Usage of the word “compassion” suffered as a result of war, and sadly, it has never fully recovered, being used half as frequently today as it was in 1805.

I wish I could go back to the NICU on that day and find a way to sit with that other father in his suffering. Perhaps there is nothing I could do for him, but I wish I would have tried. People are suffering all around us, but how often do we take the risk to sit with them in their pain? Perhaps we’re afraid that someone might snap at us, but I know I am grateful for a kind word or gesture when I am in pain, so I can presume others would react similarly.

A recent confessor gave me a penance to do something kind for a person in need, and I think this would make a great Lenten practice. What if, whether in small ways or large, the 40 days were filled with acts of compassion, sitting with others in need? It seems to me that this is a great reminder of what we’re called to be as Christians, and it also seems a bit daunting. Yet I know, had I the courage to sit with that father in the NICU, I may not be admitting to you that I wish I had. Instead, I may be writing a story of the family friendship that began because one father didn’t rush past another father in his time of need. This Lent I pray I will learn to see past myself in order to better appreciate the suffering Jesus in others.