STC Values: Compassion

by Peter DeWit

Does it ever feel like you have compassion-deficit days or weeks? Hey, don’t beat yourself up about it, you are not alone. It’s all too easy to feel our not ‘enoughness’ in the light of the challenges and needs of our world. But for the sake of conversation here, may I ask you your definition of compassion? Maybe you would say, “It probably has to do something with feeling bad for those going through hard times.” Well, that sounds like it could be empathy or more like pity. Maybe it would be helpful to dissect the word compassion from its latin origins? The prefix ‘com’ refers to ‘with’ and the second part ‘passio’ has the meaning of one who suffers. Our English word ‘patient’ is thought to come from that etymology. So then, the meaning of compassion is to come alongside someone who is suffering. Brene Brown, who describes herself as a researcher and storyteller, was asked what compassion looked like to her. She answered, “When love meets suffering and it stays loving, that is what compassion looks like.” I like that, a lot. In the face of the suffering, we don’t look down upon the sufferer, or run away, or squelch our love. We come alongside in order to bring some sort of comfort.

I do think for a lot of people the idea of meeting suffering in others can be terrifying. I’ve heard many volunteers say to me, “I’ve never talked to a homeless person on the street before. But now that I have, I realize they are people like us.” And from that personal connection there grows in us compassion. I’ve also seen the other extreme, which is apathy. Absolutely no interest in entering into solidarity with those who are in distress. I’ve also seen angry responses to the kindness of volunteers serving the vulnerable on the streets, “If you guys would just stop serving these____________, they would go away!” In the face of suffering we can respond in so many uncompassionate ways, and sadly even disgust. 

At Serve the City, we talk a lot about our values, and compassion is an important one. But here’s the thing, even the most compassionate of people can grow weary in coming alongside those in need. Have you been there? Of course you have. Then you felt guilty that you weren’t doing more to alleviate the suffering. This affects naturally empathetic people the most, they have a tendency, because of their empathy, to take on too much. It begs the question, how do we protect ourselves from a compassionate deficit? 

One good starting point is to set realistic limits on what we can and cannot do. Recently, a young African of 16 years wanted me to be like his father. And, man-o-man, I love the title of papa, but it’s so demanding. There I was, I read and reread his text to me, “I have no father, could you be one for me.” It took me aback because I realized that what he was wanting was a guarantee that I’d never forsake or leave him; you know, kind of like God. But fortunately for everybody, I am not God. I am a limited human who gives as much as he can in every situation, but has to sometimes say, “Nope, can’t do that.” 

Recently I came across some great advice that could be called the three discernment questions of compassionate people. It goes like this: 

Know what is mine to do, and what’s not mine to do. 

Know what is mine to say, and what’s not mine to say. 

Know what is mine to care about, and what’s not mine to care about. 


It’s important that we understand that this has nothing to do with who is more worthy of our energy and who is not. The wisdom of these three discernment questions is mostly to do with keeping your life in good balance. In fact, it is about having compassion for yourself. I mentioned people who are naturally empathetic, and I fall into that category. Many times I’ve plugged in the tea kettle and got the coffee machine purring in order to fill up thermoses and find some homeless who could use a little love.  For me to know that I can do some small thing for someone in need is energizing. But if someone comes along and tries to guilt me into adding more and more needs to my plate, well, that ain’t okay! Let me say it this way, “I can give you a cup of green mint tea with honey in it, but maybe I can’t be your lawyer, bank machine, or father. And that is just okay. I can open my door and invite you for a hot meal, but sorry, I can’t put you and your friends up at the hotel tonight. And that’s okay too. I can give this one a warm winter jacket and to that one some new shoes, but I can’t always be there to encourage every heart that feels abandoned and lost.” And guess what? That’s okay, someone else can!

It’s not easy to come to this understanding of our limits, we love being the hero in our story. But this is a resilience path for us. I’ve told volunteers in the past, “You don’t have to come to Serve the City every time we have an initiative. You’ll burn out. We want you to stick around a lot longer than a few months.”  So yes, we need discernment to know what is ours to do and who is ours to care for. It might be that compassion is nudging us to come alongside just a few special people in our volunteering and not the whole needy bunch. 

Nudged by compassion. I want to stay in the fray and feel that nudge. You remember me mentioning that young man who wanted me to be his father? Although he’s traveled to another country to try his luck there, we still keep in touch regularly. He calls me Peter. And my heart feels the nudging to follow his story, to be in his life in some small way. That’s what keeps me going, that nudging, even when I get a little discouraged or frustrated. And I believe compassion, when it is all said and done, is an offshoot of that short four-lettered-word with humongous meaning, love. If I can just keep loving when I meet suffering, my compassion will never run dry. As I allow my heart to be touched by the distress of others, I will avoid becoming cynical or numb. Instead of flaming out, love will fuel me for another day, not to save the whole world, but to help in some small way that one, or two, or more, in their suffering and accompany them along life’s way.

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