Editor’s note: This article was written before we started practicing social distancing to avoid the spread of sickness. But the lesson of being compassionate is still timely, if enacted differently these weeks.
Peering through my frozen breath, I gazed at the people happily chatting with steaming cups in hand. Between us stood a thick door. Grasping at the brass on the old weathered wood, I tested the weight. It was heavy. I tried shifting my weight off the crutches solely onto my good leg. Bracing my back tighter, I pulled again. It wouldn’t budge. A warm aroma squeezed out to greet me, but I remained stuck. As I stood there looking through the wavy glass, I felt as if I might as well have been knocking at a wall.
Suddenly, a young woman at a table by the door caught sight of me. She jumped out of her seat and ran toward me. With one swift movement, she threw open the door.
“I remember what that’s like!” she said.
“Thank you so much!” I responded, trying to hide the tears that were starting to well up.
“Really! It’s just a door!” I thought unsympathetically toward myself. “Why am I getting emotional over a door?”
I realized I was not going to be able to carry my own coffee, so I went to find a seat until my friend arrived. A man who was all settled in a prime spot with his coffee and computer motioned to me.
“Do you have a seat?”
“Not yet,” I replied.
“You won’t be able to sit on the tall stools over there. Sit here,” he said with an understanding tone as he rose from his seat.
“Thank you so much!” I said, nodding to him in unspeakable gratitude.
Touched by the gestures of kindness, I lowered myself into the seat to wait for my friend. They were admittedly small gestures, but they touched me profoundly. I cracked open my prayer journal to pass the time. Every Lent, I return to the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatius’s perennial call to pray for the grace of compassion—the ability to suffer with Christ—as we encounter the Crucifixion.
As I reflected, the images of the young woman running toward me and the man offering me his seat would not leave my mind. I tried to refocus my prayer. It seemed there was no resisting these images, so I just sat with them in gratitude. As I sat there, it occurred to me that the Spirit was directing me to these images because they were gestures of compassion.
I often fall into the trap of thinking that compassion needs to be some huge gesture that takes a lot of effort. This makes compassion into something that I can only do if I have extra time and energy. The fact is, though, compassion is a posture that requires open eyes and an open heart. It doesn’t always mean huge actions. It can be manifest in smaller actions. It is a nod of togetherness in suffering. Compassion is a standing-with another in a difficult time, if only for a moment.
In his book, The Ignatian Adventure, Kevin O’Brien, SJ, speaks of compassion in the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises:
In this phase of the Exercises, we accompany Jesus into the mystery of human suffering…We don’t need to make any big promises or figure out answers to timeless existential questions about the meaning of suffering. We just need to be present to Jesus and continue to have our hearts schooled about what compassion is all about. In this school of the heart, the cross becomes an extension of Jesus’ ministry of loving presence.
Two questions will inevitably arise if we enter this “school of the heart:”
- Where in my life do I see suffering?
- How might I alleviate that suffering, even a little bit?
Even small gestures can open doors—and those gestures can be the difference between leaving one out in the cold and welcoming someone into the warmth of community.
Your words reminded me again – what I know but often fail to practice: small acts with great love. And – an attitude of gratitude. Not cliches but simple truths. For putting into beautiful and understandable words what I must do, bless you Rebecca. Simply thanking the 10 or so workers laboring at the grocery store I found open the other morning brought tears to my eyes, and to some of theirs. Two women poured out personal experiences, and their trust in me by their sharing near toppled me.
Thank you so much.
God Bless you Rebecca. I am house-bound and some one came twice this week and did me a very good turn..I must say it was from the same people. so god bless them also. I spent most of my life being independent and in positions where I could help others, but when one is not out and about, that is often forgotten. Keep up your good work. A.M.D.G.
I am so glad to hear of these acts of compassion that you have experienced. I hope and pray that we still remember each other when things return to “normal.” Perhaps we will arrive at a “new normal” where we remember each other all the time. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And, perhaps we will take away the reminder that an effort that seems small to one person may mean the world to another. And, while you or I might be less able to move about right now, we still have other gifts to share – perhaps a phone call or a letter to let someone know they are thought of … whatever it is, we all bring gifts to the table!
God’s Peace and wellness to you. AMDG!
Nice. Thanks Rebecca. Tiny little gestures of compassion go a long way in making life livable and meaningful. Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: “Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use.”
Dr. Coelho, Thank your for your comment and sharing this wonderful quote! I love it! God’s Peace and wellness to you.
Thank you, Rebecca. This was just what I needed to hear, that compassion requires open eyes and heart and not always huge actions. This is so important for us to hear during the time of social isolation. Reaching out to people alone at home even with an email or phone call, being patient with my husband who is an extrovert and really chafes at being homebound and the social isolation, I am looking for new ways to be compassionate.
Yes, there certainly is something about this forced social isolation that schools us in compassion – both within the home and outside the home – isn’t there? Everything is different – our schedules, our space (or lack thereof), our radius within the community – and it challenges us not just to compassion with others but also to compassion with ourselves too! Prayers for God’s peace and wellness to you and yours.
Wow. Rebecca. This is very timely. Although we can’t share coffee in shops right now in the U.S, near my home is a wide greenbelt and neighbors show compassion in many ways as we walk, far apart, in these days bursting with Spring buds. On the sidewalks, someone has colorfully written encouraging phrases like “Stay healthy” and “Love is the answer.” People wave across the paths and shout hello to everyone. I pass a couple sitting on their upstairs balcony greeting passersby. Compassion indeed comes in small gestures.
I love this hope-filled scene that you recount! Seeing the buds and the vibrant greens of spring is such a great reminder of the countless small gestures God places in our paths every day showing us that God has not forgotten us. I hope that, when these days pass, we all remember how difficult it was to stay apart and that we will retain a renewed appreciation for each person we encounter. I hope too that we will remember the value of the small gestures of compassion that emerged widely during this time. And, may we continue to embrace the Sacred within – today from afar or and nearer on that day when we are able to come close again! Peace and wellness to you and yours.
I know how you felt Rebecca. In the UK those of us over 70 and with severe medical problems are recommended (strongly) to avoid any social contact for 12 weeks. So how do we get essential foods and medicine? Yesterday two neighbours came across and offered to help whilst this morning a friend of my daughter’s rang to say she was shopping for her aged mother and could she get anything for us? Good Samaritans all round.
God bless. Evil does not have the final word. This too shall pass.
“This too shall pass” – words to remember as we face these long days. Thank you for the reminder, T McAteer!
I am so glad to hear of the Good Samaritans all around you, Peter. This time of isolation is certainly very difficult but it is truly heartening to hear the stories of people reaching across the divide! God’s peace and wellness to you!