Do we truly feel compassion for those in tragic situations or do we feel relief, whispering “I’m grateful it’s not me..?” If we probe the depth of our hearts, we would probably admit that we experience both feelings – a bit of compassion for the difficult plight of others plus relief that tragedy has passed us by. Perhaps the quest for happiness is the reason we offer to justify these mixed feelings. But are we really happy with such a conflicted heart?
The great thinkers, writers and philosophers in history would argue that compassion is the key to happiness. The Dalai Lama shared “if you want others to be happy practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” “St. Bernard, in the 12th century, said that Christ is our primary teacher of compassion because He willed His passion so that we could learn compassion. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, wrote about how our compassion can mitigate the suffering of a friend.” (Catholic Education Resource Center)
Recently, I’ve made a personal goal to read classic world literature from the last few centuries. Upon finishing the book Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, I found myself pondering one of the main characters. Of the three sons of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, only one stood out as a peaceful man in this passionate and tragic novel. Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov was the youngest son who emerged as the novel’s hero. He was not the most wealthy, handsome or grand, but he was the most compassionate and loving of the boys. These virtues evaded his elder two brothers despite their pitiful efforts. Unlike Alexei, his brothers did not know God. Only Alexei, who served as a novice in the Russian Orthodox Monastery for a time, truly understood the real meaning of life – to love and be loved by God and others. It was Alexei who showed compassion to his accused brother Dmitri and ailing, atheist brother Ivan. It was Alexei who showed compassion to the gossiping women, cruel school boys and unkind village families. And it was Alexei who even showed compassion to his bumbling, selfish father, a man who in many folks eyes, did not deserve love or respect from his sons. Alexei brought people together and gave them hope – a hope based on a God of love, not selfishness. In the end, everyone in Alexei’s family perished in one way or another except for him.
Alexei reminded me of my mom in so many ways. Like my mom Joan, he was soft spoken, caring, and compassionate to all. Also like Joan, Alexei helped people feel better about themselves after being in his company. One may think this is an easy thing to do, but history and society have shown us the difficult reality of the human condition. Alexei’s brother Dmitri sought to do good – his heart even hurt after his selfish actions but he could not help himself. “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7-15) There are times when we all “do what we hate.” When this happens we should try to catch ourselves and act with compassion. The example set by Alexei is that we should not put conditions on our actions. If someone shuns us, hurts us, betrays us or worse, we should still show them compassion. The opposite leads to a heart filled with hate which opens the door to a life of unhappiness. When we refuse to forgive, we hold ourselves hostage. Alexei’s kind treatment of his selfish father demonstrated that love and compassion prevail above the evil’s of the world.
People like my beautiful mom show us that living with compassion is possible all of the time. In order to live in love, we must call upon the God of love. Making Him a daily part of our lives is a good place to start. Perhaps this effort will allow us to set aside the noise and busyness of the world and listen for the quiet whisper of Love in our soul. Then we may be able to say with conviction “I do feel compassion for those who suffer and I offer myself to help the afflicted in anyway.”