Seconds, minutes, hours, days… all wound up in moments of time. Thousands of these moments thread through our lives, entering and leaving, unremarkable, unnoticed, and later unremembered. But not all moments are lost in this way, some moments etch themselves into minds forever, carving themselves into the walls of our consciousness,
returning again and again, reminding us of who we want to be. This day many years ago was one of these, a moment long past yet unforgotten, because it taught me again how to see, not just with human eyes, but with a humanising heart; a heart of compassion.
I was an adolescent and always coming and going, coming and going between countries, cities and understanding of myself. I had returned from somewhere (can’t quite remember where) to spend time with my parents for a weekend. We were in Tasmania and had driven down south, threading our way through towns, countryside and forest, talking, listening, sitting in silence, soaking in the passing scenery.
Eventually we happened upon a small town which in that moment was hosting an alternative arts festival. We stopped to investigate. Weaving through the crowds, stopping at stalls and wandering in tents we spent the afternoon in happy meanderings, my father always lagging behind, my mother and I walking together chatting.
Jesus said that the eye is the lamp of the body. I never fully understood this, it was always like a tune being hummed, without the lyrics to explain it. I heard it, I even liked the sound of it, but I never fully understood it. There are a lot of things in my life that I haven’t fully understood. I haven’t understood them until not understanding them became impossible; When truth like an early morning glare pried my eyelids open to it’s burning rays, fiery-light truth gently clothed as an unassuming moment.
We wandered, my mother and I into one of the tents. One moment. That is all we gave it.
Neither of us were comfortable staying long. The woman in this tent was dressed as a fairy, she was selling small ‘fairy chairs’ that she had made out of sticks and moss. It only took a moment for us to comprehend that she wasn’t just dressed as a fairy, but she actually thought she was one. My mother and I both left the tent moments after we entered it, fleeing from the discomfort, fleeing the strangeness and lostness in her eyes. My father, wandering along afterwards, didn’t flee.
Later on as we were driving away we reflected on where we had been and what we had seen. “Wasn’t the fairy lady a little strange” my mother and I had agreed, “Weird”.
Its always nice to be around people who agree with how you see the world. Makes everything easy. Comfortable.
My father took a moment to draw in his breath, then he said quietly, “No. She’s just a struggling spirit trying to find her way”.
Silence fell like a curtain over a cheap cabaret stage show. Funny how silence can be so pregnant with truth, the fiery truth that burns your eyelids open, forcing you to see. Calling you to see yourself in it’s light.
We had all entered the same tent, seen the same woman, heard the same story, and been in the same moment, yet we had not seen with the same eyes.
That was the truth glaring in my eyes now, burning in my heart.
My father, in that moment when he met this lady who was dressed as a child in a make believe world, rather than leaving in discomfort had stayed, many moments. He had looked at each chair she had made with interest, listened to the woman long, listened through her words to her emptiness, he had seen… something. Something my mother and I in our insular fear and discomfort just didn’t see, didn’t take a moment to see. My father didn’t just take a moment, he gave a moment and in that moment made space for something else; Compassion.
Compassion is not a feeling but a way of seeing; And the way we see becomes the way we live.
‘Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness.’ Luke 11:34
Your eye is the lamp of your body because the eyes with which you see not only illuminate but form the path on which you walk.
William Blake once wrote ‘As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers.’
Unhealthy eyes, eyes that only see ourselves and our own discomfort, our own self-absorption cause us to stumble around in the dark, trampling on others, missing moments and fumbling in blindness. These blind eyes also form a path, but not one that leads us to ourselves.
The pain, loneliness or distress of a struggling spirit, another human being, asks us a question, but at the same time it also gives us an answer. It asks us ‘will we care?’ and our answer to this question tells us how our eyes are formed, who we really are and the path we are really on.
If we are lucky we all get a chance to have these moments, moments of light breaking into sight and fire kindling in heart, burning away our apathy, fear and self interest prying our eyelids open to the truth. When Syrian refugee baby Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, the whole world had one of these moments; And the light bore holes into hearts on every continent. We all had a chance to see, for one moment, to see what is precious, to feel again in our numb hearts the fire of compassion that awakens us to ourselves; who we really are underneath the scum, the scum of self interest, comfort and consumption, the scum of busyness rush and distraction, the scum of everything which keeps us from everything that matters. And as we see, we realise that with these eyes, these eyes of compassion, for the first time in a long while we are actually beginning to see ourselves, to be ourselves, to be fully human. As Thomas Mann once wrote ‘No one remains quite what he was when he recognises himself.’
According to an expanding body of scientific evidence, compassion, though not always part of the way we see, is part of who we are as the human race. Research has found in fact that to feel compassion and want to help another is our first impulse as human beings of any age.
Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute in Germany has discovered that babies from a very young age will naturally and spontaneously help others in need, even when they have to overcome barriers in order to extend this help. It was found that the desire to help another came from an intrinsic motivation (not with expectation of external reward). The alleviation of another’s suffering was the reward.
Another experiment conducted by Elizabeth Dunn, of the University of British Columbia,
found that spending money on others makes us happier than spending money on ourselves, and brain imaging research by Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman of the National Institute of Health has found that the ‘pleasure centres’ of our brains are activated when we observe others giving money to charity.
In recent months the Australian government has been sending several hundred asylum seekers (including over 40 babies) to offshore detention centres on islands such as Nauru. There is a reason for this. They need to be away, away from eyes, away from hearts, out of sight, out of mind. Because for human beings, to see with eyes another in misery is to feel the tug of our deepest core, the core breathed into by life and light, that reaches up through our souls, prying the eyelids of our broken hearts open, forcing us to see, forcing us to care, calling us out to be greater than we thought we could be, to finally fill the skin of our birthright.
Though we may not always live lives of compassion and connection, we breath out in relief and surprise when we find it within ourselves because it is actually a part of who we really are as human beings. It has been hard-wired into us from the beginning.
We care because we are our Father’s children and this Father, when disclosing to Moses on the mountain top His true nature, of all His attributes chooses first to describe himself as Compassionate. Compassion is His first motivation, His first response, His first plan, His first action.
‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.’ Exodus 34:6-8
‘When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate’ Exodus 22:27
‘For the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.’ 2 Chronicles 30:9
We have a ‘compassion instinct’ not just because it was beneficial for evolution, but because we are formed after a compassionate being, a compassionate Father.
During the Nuremberg War trials the evidence presented revealed that the guards in Nazi concentration camps frequently suffered severe levels of stress due to humane feelings breaking in and ‘disrupting’ their peace of mind.
‘To stay detached the guards used tricks of language such as referring to prisoners by numbers than names or repeatedly labelling them as vermin, or subhuman’ (David Hay, ‘Something There’)
When the Nazi death squad Battalion 101 was first sent into Eastern Poland, and ordered to kill thousands of Jewish men, women and children these soldiers were absolutely traumatised, despite the fact that they had been ‘thoroughly indoctrinated’ to see Jewish people not as human beings but as ‘vermin’.
Even in war we cannot escape our birthright, who we really are as human beings, but this birthright means we are constantly at war within ourselves. And not every war is won by goodness, not every eye is open to the light. Although we as the human race have managed to send people to the moon, discover vaccines against ebola and create a mechanism to change TV channels with our minds, we have also managed to create and use the atom bomb, produce the holocaust, the Lords resistance army, the Khmer Rouge, Stalin and ISIS. There are still a lot of things about ourselves and who we really are that we haven’t fully understood. And we won’t fully understand them until not understanding them becomes impossible, when truth like an early morning glare pries our eyelids open to it’s burning rays of light.
If compassion is within us, then why does darkness and self interest still dominate our headlines? The hard glaring truth is that though compassion is wired into our hearts, fear, apathy, distraction and prejudice daily override these instincts.
We all know that even the best of us are not the human beings we were when we were born. At birth (and even before) we were received into the arms of a world laced with prejudice, fear and indifference, a world lined with pressure to look good, to fall in line, to succeed. And we learned the ‘tricks of language’ to survive in this world. We became part of this world and our eyes were re-formed in its image. Slowly our vision of the value and trustworthiness of our fellow human beings began to diminish. Our eyes are slowly taught not to see, not to trust, not to hope, not to love and most of all… simply not to notice. Our hearts closed up, our eyes became blind.
So we walk by on the other side of the road, dismissing, ignoring, withdrawing, rationalising…. anything but stopping, anything but listening, anything but making a moment for compassion.
Jesus left us with the perplexing story of the good samaritan. All the ‘professionals’ who were supposed to care rush past the struggling spirit in a whirl of self important rush and self righteous prejudice. Their eyes were noticing the wrong things. The Samaritan saw what really mattered, past all the blinding barriers of appearance, race, history and prejudice, all the way through to the person underneath, the struggling spirit trying to find their way.
Jesus walked this earth as a man at a time in history with little medical knowledge and great need; a time, like now, in need of great compassion. Struggling spirits flocked to him, trying to find their way, broken bodies, broken minds, broken hearts.
He always took a moment, gave a moment, for these, but what I find interesting is that he rarely responds the same way twice. Everything he does is in response to the moment and the person before him. He sees each person, each moment in resonating real time, and in seeing, his heart responds with compassion.
Compassion is within each one of us. It is our inheritance from a loving Father who loves first so we might learn to love. But our eyes can be faulty and our eyes are the lamp of our soul, leading us on the path we will walk. Compassion breaks in when I choose to let my line of sight push through the barriers of distraction, rush and self interest to really see the moment before me.
But how do we do it? How do we have compassion in a world where broken people take advantage, manipulate generosity and use goodwill to evil ends? What can we do when terrorists dress as refugees and confirm the deepest fears of our already cautious hearts?
How do we not live in fear and slowly let that fear turn to hate?
In seeing with eyes of compassion, Jesus didn’t leave his brain at the door. Compassion requires wisdom and creative thought.
In Matthew 10:16 he acknowledges ”I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
I love the story of Jesus when a woman caught in adultery is dragged by the self righteous Pharisees before Jesus in an attempt to use his compassion to bring about his downfall.
The woman was dragged, bruised, outcast, labeled and thrown down before him in shame. They were proud, self righteous, arrogant and strong. She was weak and alone.
Jesus saw. He took a moment. He gave a moment.
‘They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.’
He drew a line in the sand and then he stood beside her on the ‘wrong’ side of that line.
You without sin, pitch first; Hurl your stone, hurl your hate, hurl your prejudice, hurl your rationalisations, hurl your indifference, hurl your religious-motivated pride and your fear-motivated hate.
We’re ready. Eyes wide open. Seeing. Seeing everything.
It’s much easier to hurl stones with everyone else than to stand beside the person receiving them. Its much easier to walk past a person in need than to reach out your hand in love and generosity. Its much easier to withdraw, than to extend the hand of mercy.
Compassion steps over the line of pride, prejudice and pain, reaching across all boundaries, breaking every rule, in order to extend love and help.
You without sin, pitch first. One by one the Pharisees leave. No one is left. Not even one.
You see, there is no them and us. We all of us are in some way at some point on the wrong side of that line. And Jesus, the only person there with the right not to be is by our side, shoulder to shoulder.
The truth is that there was no right side of that line, and Jesus response was actually compassionate love both for the woman caught in adultery and the Pharisees. Love and exhortation for the woman wrapped in sin, love and exhortation for the Pharisees caught in pride.
Compassion is not a licence to say ‘anything goes’, its the strength to call out the strength in all of us. Love is more than a bleeding heart. It is a belief in the best of who we human beings can be, even when all our behaviour is screaming that we’re moral vacuums wrapped in death.
Jesus knew the Pharisees were selling themselves short. His words, though direct, did not write them off, in that moment those words reached deep into their hearts, humbling their wilful pride, giving them an opportunity to repent.
Am I out of touch with reality to believe that some of the young men in ISIS still have human hearts? Maybe. But the light of compassion within our hearts need not flicker because their’s within them fails.
Jesus responses stir something in us that is already there waiting to be awoken.
We draw the lines in the wrong place we human beings. We all of us need to remember that the very act of drawing a line between them and us at all immediately puts us on the wrong side of it. There are no valid lines, no walls. There is no them and us. There is only the struggling spirit of humanity, formed in the image of a loving Father who is reaching, hoping, loving, stretching out in compassion to fan the flickering light within us all, calling us to be who we truly were, who we truly could be, who we truly are.
That day many years ago, the actions of my own very human father challenged my eyes to see, not by his words, but by his life lived out in that moment before my eyes.
Further scientific research has found that observing other people respond compassionately to human suffering inspires and elevates us, calling us out to give and show compassion ourselves.
This has been shown to lead to a possible compassion cascade, where generosity and kindness reproduce themselves in others around us, leading to a flood of generosity and goodwill. (Emma Seppala, ‘The Compassionate Mind’)
This is the secret that Jesus knew, and perhaps part of his strategy in living and breathing the way he did before us.
One moment lived through the eyes of compassion can change the world, indeed, it already has. Compassion multiplies compassion and love multiplies love in a never ending spiral of seeing, eyes wide open, hearts alive in light.
As I write this, the UK is reacting to over immigration, Europe is at breaking point under the refugee crisis, Thailand is arresting and imprisoning refugees, Australia is sending people to off shore detention centres and America is heading towards a major election in which immigration is a hot issue.
We are all being asked a question. And our answer to this question will tell us who we are, or who we have become.
What will our answer be?