By Kellie Schorr
Many years ago, while working as the leader of a youth group, I took some teens to a weekend “lock in” with young people and leaders from other places.
The event leader set up a service project to feed the homeless who gathered in a certain area of town. The teens put together bag lunches with food, apples, and helpful items then went in pairs to hand out the bags. After the event they gathered with adult leaders for a discussion session before heading to the “fun part” of the weekend.
Experienced at appeasing their chaperones, the teens said all the right things to make the discussion as fast and painless as possible.
“I felt really good helping someone.”
“I’m glad we went.”
“I was a little scared at first but now I see how important it is to care for others.”
One brave teen raised her hand and said, “I was really disturbed by this. We shouldn’t have done it and our leaders should have known better than to set this up.” The electric fire of her statement held us all in momentary shock.
“A man,” she continued, “took a bag from me and Susan and ate the sandwich right in front of us without thinking twice. He took food from two kids with a paper name sticker written in marker. He didn’t know who we really were. He didn’t know if we meant him harm or good. It could have been a trick. It could have been poison. It could have been anything. But he was so hungry he would take food from any hand that offered it. That shouldn’t make us feel good. It should gut us. And every time we give him the experience that this is safe, we are setting him up for one time that it isn’t.”
The event leader became defensive, arguing with the girl and eventually lashing out by calling the teens “spoiled,” “ungrateful,” and “clueless” before he stormed from the room. The girl asked me if I thought she did something wrong. I said her comments were astute and the leader possibly felt disappointed because he thought this event was a good way to teach compassion. She replied, “Well, I am being compassionate to that man in the street and future homeless people so they don’t get hurt. If he’s all about compassion, why didn’t he want to hear me?”
When Compassion Isn’t Welcome
I thought of this experience after the siege of the US Capitol on January 6th. The next day I was talking with a Buddhist friend about the woman who had been shot during the riot. I said I thought it was so very tragic this woman, a QAnon follower, lost her life over claims that were repeatedly proven untrue.
“You storm the Capitol, you get shot. She got what she deserved,” my friend answered. I was taken aback by her veracity.
“These rioters, so many of them seem like such broken people,” I replied.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she said. “These are traitors and they got what they got.” End of discussion.
Suddenly, I was on the wrong side of an issue I didn’t really see as having sides. To my friend my sentiments appeared out-of-step, unrealistic and offensive. Her message was clear. I could feel all the compassion I wanted to feel, but I needed to keep it to myself.
So what do you do when your heart cry is considered the “unpopular opinion” and your expression of compassion isn’t welcome?
Look and Listen
The first thing to do is a feeling check of what you’re expressing. Ask hard questions of yourself and your intention. Do you really feel compassion in the situation or do you just think you “should” feel that way? Anyone who has been raised or lived in a dysfunctional situation knows how easy it is to be “pleasing” and to conjure what you are expected to feel, instead of being authentic to your own heart at the moment. Are you protecting, projecting or pondering?
Be on the lookout for things like spiritual bypassing or “cheap forgiveness” where you claim to forgive someone just to avoid the pain of reckoning. True forgiveness requires time, accountability and thoughtful exploration. Make sure you aren’t “faking it until you make it” where you display a spiritual ideal but aren’t in that place in any real way.
Genuine feelings are all valid and there isn’t one that is more virtuous than any other. Avoid the casual write-off of “feelings are just visitors.” Honor and learn from each one as it comes, and make space for the feelings of others, even though you know those thoughts will not stay forever.
If the ideas you express are causing more hurt than healing, stop. Just stop. Then, listen.
When someone openly rejects your expression of compassion ask about their thoughts and listen, without judgement, argument, or prodding any deeper than they want to take you. If I had listened first, I’d realize my friend had given years of her own life serving this country and those symbols she saw desecrated were very important to her. She was angry, and hurt. For me, anger (even “rightful anger”) is always a delayed reaction. I hadn’t yet processed the anger I would later feel.
If we had the same discussion a month or two from now, she would probably have a different lens and I might not have had the same focus. Both of our feelings were initial reactions, and it was way too early for either of us to have developed an awake, more tangible, response. It wasn’t a wrong discussion to have, but it suffered from poor timing.
While every minute is a time for compassion, providing space and empathy is the best form of compassion in a moment that is too soon for much else.
Empathy is about listening and being present with someone as they share their experience. You are not ascribing any perception of right or wrong, valid or skewed. You aren’t psychoanalyzing why they feel that way. It is the simple act of saying, “I’m here with you right now.”
That’s the best thing to do when your expressed compassion seems to be causing more ache than awareness. Don’t inform, don’t persuade, just be together in the moment.
As Anne Lamott famously wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
Editor: Dana Gornall
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