What I Mean When I Say Compassion

This one is about definitions. This is how I define respect, how I define compassion, how I define the old Quaker injunction to “Walk cheerfully over the earth, answering that of God in every one.” And since it’s me writing this, we start with a story.

When I was in high school, there was a student named April who was developmentally disabled, with the conversational ability and habits of a seven-year-old, though she was older than I was. She was always cheerful, always smiling. On two separate occasions, I happened to see two different people interacting with April in similar ways. Both times April was brightly telling the other person about her day, or what she was headed off to do next. The difference, however, is what stands out.

Once she was talking to Bryce. Bryce was a pretty solid guy, older son of a Mormon family, the quarterback and the homecoming king. He was popular, of course, but he’d nod to even a nobody like me once we’d had a class together. So as April talked to him, he listened politely, said all the right things, because he was the kind of guy who would do the right thing. But he wasn’t comfortable. Watching, I could see the tension in his stance and hear the uneasiness in his voice. I don’t know if April picked up on it; I hope not. Bryce was doing the right thing, doing it fairly well, but he wasn’t happy.

The other time, April was talking to Will. Will was a dynamo, in band, theater, a service group, and an accelerated program. I don’t know when, or if, he slept. When April talked to him, he said much the same things as Bryce. But Will was clearly delighted to be talking with her. His tone of voice, his body language, were all radically different, more open.

And when they were done with their conversation and April had moved on, Will came over to me and said, “You know, everyone should be more like April.”

That’s compassion. That’s seeing “that of God.”

Bear in mind that this is no criticism of Bryce, because as much as I admire Will, I imagine he started where Bryce was. Bryce’s action is where we begin, if we’re serious about trying and honest about our abilities. Will’s act is what we can aim for.

I try to remember that, and to follow Will’s lead, in my dealings with gay, lesbian, and transgender people, with homeless people, with people of other races, with people of other mental abilities.

I even try to remember it with my enemies.

There’s a man who ran for president recently. The policies he endorses would be so harmful and detrimental to my friends who are gay and my friends who are women that I have to account him my enemy. Yet his determination in the face of insurmountable odds, for the sake of beliefs which he seems to hold deep and dear… that I have to admire, though I cannot abide the beliefs themselves. And so I have to say, “Senator, I cannot permit you any power, I cannot abide your principles, I reject your ideals with all my soul and I rejoice in your defeat.

“I want to be more like you.”

I have questioned the principles of government, I have accused the United States of not deserving its existence, I’ve proposed building an economy based on the Book of Leviticus, I’m comfortable with my doubtful sanity and with the uncertain existence of God. But this, if anything, is what makes me radical: to say to people I despise, “Teach me.” To say to people I loathe, “Let me learn from you.” To say to anyone who makes me twitch back in revulsion or disgust, “I love you.”

This is what’s going to get me killed some day, and this is what might save us all: to be more like our enemies and more like April and more like Will. Zeal and innocence and wisdom, all for the sake of each other, all for the sake of love.

And that’s what I mean when I say compassion.


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