Monday, March 09, 2009

Why would anybody want that?

One of our favorite shows around our house is "Malcolm in the Middle." The family depicted in the series consists of two loving, noisy, completely crazy parents and four sons - until later in the series when they have a fifth son. The children and I laugh and laugh at their antics. I tell the kids that those parents say outloud what so many parents think inside.

For example, at the end of one episode, the parents resolve a conflict precipitated by the fact that the wife had gotten orthotics for her shoes. She had spent months coming home from her job at a discount store complaining of the pain in her feet and back - and was greeted every day by her husband who had made it is his mission to make her feel better. He would cook dinner before she got home, prepare some appetizer and drink for her, and while she ranted and raved about the challenges of her day, he would sit and rub her feet. The trouble started when she bought orthotics and the pain in her feet went away. So she complained less and needed his pampering less. He was outraged and set out to destroy those orthotics. Anyway, at the end of the episode, they talked about how much they loved each other and how mistaken he was in thinking that, by buying the orthotics, she was saying that no longer wanted his love and affection. They began to list for one another other mistakes they had made in their marraige. She asked, "Do you remember when we used to think that our children would make us happy?" His response: "We were just being stupid then." Yup!

In another episode, their son Reese, sabatoged the cooking projects of other students in his class. His parents tried to explain to him the meaning of empathy: "If someone else is hurt, you would feel their pain. You would know what it is to have your project sabatoged." His response, "So why would you want empathy?"

Sometimes I ask myself questions like that.
Why do I want empathy with the suffering of others if it means I must suffer more?
Why do I want to enter into the frightened and frightening lives of people I know who are in this country without legitimate working papers? Why enter into their fear and despair?
Why go to Nicaragua or any other country and take medicine or food or clothing to people who haven't asked for my help or feed the homeless on Saturday mornings here in Charlotte or serve as a translator for someone seeking legal advice for her son who is in prison?
Why care about the soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan? I don't know anyone there and didn't support the decision to invade either of those countries. Why care about the Iraqi or Afghani families of those who have lost loved ones?
Why should I care about those who I have hurt in my lifetime, through selfishness, sabatoge, anger, judgment, dishonesty, or any other my many self-centered decisions? If they aren't smart enough to protect themselves or provide for themselves, too bad for them.
Why would I want empathy or compassion?
Why bother?

Henri Nouwen writes about compassion like this: "Compassion asks us to go to where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human... It is not surprising that compassion, understood as suffering with, often evokes in us a deep resistance and even protest. We are inclined to say, 'This is self-flagellation, this is masochism, this is a morbid interest in pain, this is a sick desire.' It is important for us to acknowledge this resistance and to recognize that suffering is not something we desire or to which we are attracted. On the contrary, it is something we want to avoid at all cost. Therefore, compassion is not among our most natural responses. We are pain-avoiders and we consider anyone who feels attracted to suffering abnormal, or at least very unusual."

Henri Nouwen himself lived a life of deep compassion, spending many years living in a community of the profoundly disabled. Mother Teresa with the lepers and the dying in Calcutta is often looked upon as someone with deep compassion.

Much closer to home, I have been most affected lately by the compassion of the neighbors who have cooked meals for us, the friends who call and send letters and care packages, the sista-friends who hug me and simply cry with me, the many who call and say they don't know what to say, but that they love us and are with us in spirit even if they cannot be with us in body. On their faces, I see the glow of love, of joy, and of generosity for having brought some relief and rest to our family. I see the glow of compassion.

The truth is that there is something life-changing about compassion, about suffering with those who suffer, about providing relief for the hurting, and rest for the weary. Something life-affirming. Life-sustaining. Life-giving.

Why would anybody want that?


Lori said...

Hi Gail, awesome, thought provoking post. I think about it it daily. Sometimes I feel I'm not doing enough. Sometimes I feel why can everyone do just a little more. Gosh, you make me want to go and get all my Henri Nouwen books and read them again. Blessings Lori

Karen Maezen Miller said...

It is the why that does not ask why.