I’m interested to know what your definition of “compassion” is – because my own is still coming together, word by word. The idea is easy enough to understand – sympathetic pity or concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all word (how many words are, really?)

Compassion is a Biblical concept, a humanitarian quality, and a way of living that is celebrated and admired. I doubt that any employer, academic institution, or interviewer would have problems with a compassionate candidate. Compassion, when it blossoms into action, is the root of inner-city missions and solutions to world hunger and nursing home visits. The mantra of people like Clara Barton, Franklin Graham, Tony Campolo, Mother Teresa. Jesus himself. If words paint a thousand pictures, compassion paints a million.

Little girls I met in Costa Rica on my mission trip in 2009 - when children are so sweet, having compassion is so easy.

In a broken world full of hurt, poverty, and problems, you can live every minute being compassionate, and still there will be work to do. This is what makes compassion both beautiful and frustrating. It’s beautiful that I can purchase a pair of TOMS shoes and reduce the number of barefooted children in the world by one. It’s frustrating that I can send monetary aid to Japan but that my deep compassion for those people expressed in a small donation won’t go very far in fixing their post-tsunami problems.

This weekend I struggled with compassion while on spring break in Chicago. My family and I explored that amazing cultural center that is downtown. Deep-dish pizza, Michigan Avenue, old architecture and Millenium Park – the city is alive and exciting. But my joys at Chicago’s delectable cuisine and my amazing purchases at H&M were tempered by the homeless people on the sidewalk. Holding out cups to collect change, holding signs that read, “I’m just hungry. Please help.”

Strolling by with my Coach purse and coffee in hand, I averted my eyes. I felt like wearing a medal inscribed with “World’s Worst Person.” At the same time I struggled with contempt for those people’s decision to sit on the sidewalk and beg when they could be at a soup kitchen, or finding work. It’s impossible to know whether these sidewalk-dwellers are truly poor or not, or just manipulative. Either way, their presence calls my compassion into question every time I come across one.

There must be better ways to help the homeless than throwing change in a cup.

I’ve stewed on this concept of compassion for a long time now, especially since leaving home and becoming more independent with my time and money. Compassion is a wonderful, complicated word. And what I’m slowly piecing together is that sometimes spontaneous, pure compassion is great – but there is also a need for boundaries.

Anecdote to illustrate: Last Thanksgiving, traveling home to Minneapolis, I took Amtrak to Chicago and then flew home. Part of the transportation process involved buying a pass to ride the “L” from downtown out to O’Hare. While I was crouched in front of the ticket machine rifling through my wallet in the subway station, gathering $2.50 for train fare, someone addressed me. I looked up and saw a young man holding a newspaper and a McDonald’s cup. Thinking the man had said, “Do you need train fare?” I said, “Oh no, I have enough, thank you.”

“No,” he said urgently, “I need train fare, can you help me out?” His eyes were wide. “I need five bucks to ride the train. Can you help me out?”

He could clearly see a bundle of cash sticking out of my wallet. I was on the ground, vulnerable. Speechless, as five seconds went by I made a quick decision. “Yes,” I stammered, handing him a five-dollar bill.

“Thanks,” he said, and disappeared.

Immediately suspicion popped into my head like a tardy friend, arriving too late. Why did he ask for $5 when train fare was $2.50? Why didn’t he buy a train pass right then andthere, instead of leaving the subway station? Why was he holding a McDonald’s cup – a clear indication that he’d had some money, at least, earlier in the day. I was mad at myself for being so easily taken advantage of. My lack of compassionate boundaries – and most likely, my inability to say no – became very evident to me at that moment. Granted, it was just five bucks. But what about next time? What about when someone asked for ten? Twenty?

Would you call that compassion, or simply Brooke-being-stupid?

What should compassion look like? I wonder if there is some clue in the word itself. After all, “passion” is 70% of the word. Maybe compassion done right is when we link the things we are passionate about with a strong desire to right wrongs and a deep, action-driven sympathy.

How do you define compassion?

(Note: After writing this blog and googling compassion in Chicago, I came across a cool and interesting concept of “smart” compassion: vouchers for the homeless through Chicago Shares. I think it’s a great concept.)


5 thoughts on “Compassion

  1. Brooke, this is such a great thing to write about. Your experience in Chicago is very similar to ones that I’ve had all over the world. It really is heart-breaking and there’s such a stigma about people who are homeless. It’s often very difficult to look beyond the brief second that we pass them and know the person.

    That being said, compassion is tricky to navigate because I think that even the best-intentioned compassionate acts can come across as patronizing. BAH! Such an easy word to say and much more difficult to live out.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. I googled compassion and found it is Latin for co-suffering. (One of those great and ever confusing Latinates). The idea of suffering with someone puts the word in a new perspective. If we are to be truly compassionate, we must be willing to take the pain of someone else. We must carry their burden.

  3. Giordano’s! H&M! My family spent a bunch of time in Chicago last fall. Lovely city.

    Early in the trip, my dad and I were chilling on a bench, waiting for my mom and sister to finish trying on clothes in a store down the street. An older woman asked us for 25 cent for the subway. “This is so embarrassing!” she said. I gave her a quarter. When my mom caught up with us, I learned that the exact same woman had hit her up for change too, right after taking ours. Exact same story and line. We had been duped.

    A few days later, we were walking in the park when we noticed a man discretely in a corner digging through a trash can who looked like he hadn’t showered in weeks. He wasn’t asking for change, and when he saw us approaching he started to leave. My mom stopped him, offered him the cheeseburger she had just bought, and prayed for him. They both cried.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this. I guess just that there are people who will try to take advantage of you, but there are also moments that make caring for others feel really worth it.

  4. Brooke, I think we all, merely human beings, have a problem with showing compassion to others. There are so many people today that have learned to work the system that we wonder if they are truly in need or just wanting money to buy more drugs or alcohol. In our work and travel over the years we have run into many people professing to be in need. We have helped some and some we have not helped. I believe we can determine by our feelings, sometimes, in talking to some people if they are truly in need or just wanting a handout. Even if we give to some that are not deserving we are still doing what we have been instructed by Jesus to do. We will be rewarded for our efforts in the long run. I had a man ask me for money to buy something to eat many years ago when I was much younger. This man was drunk. I told him I would take him and buy him something to eat. He refused and wanted me to just give him the money. I told him I knew what he wanted the money for and I would not give him money to go buy more whiskey. He turned and walked away. I think we do have to use a little common sense from time to time and ask a few questions before giving to those that ask. You made a wise choice when you gave the guy the $5.00 because you were in a vulnerable position at that moment.

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