Week Two: Be compassionate

To gratitude and presence we need to add the virtue of compassion. Empathy is that ability to see and feel things from the other person’s perspective, but compassion takes us a step further. People who are empathetic can take improper advantage of their ability to sense the feelings of others. A salesman, for example, might empathise with somebody with the sole intention of getting them to purchase a product. Compassion, however, is the ability to sense another person’s need and have the desire to do something to resolve it.

In Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son, the younger son, having behaved despicably, sets out for home, hopeful that he might be welcomed back as a servant. His father, scanning the horizon, sees his son in the distance and at that moment the father’s heart is filled with compassion. Casting off all dignity, the father runs to the son and embraces him. It is noteworthy that the father is filled with compassion before the son even speaks a word. The father doesn’t know why his son is returning, or whether the son is at all repentant. He must know, however, that his son will be feeling uncertain of how he will be received by his father, his brother and the members of the village. The father is not focused upon the offence the son committed against him, but on the fact that his son is in need of love and grace.

In recent years compassion has become the subject of academic research. While the discipline is young, evidence is emerging that we are hardwired for compassion. For example, helping others triggers the same centres in the brain that are turned on when we receive rewards or pleasure. Likewise, when people are feeling compassionate, the physiological response is the opposite to that which happens when we feel fear. Where fear raises our heart rate and heightens our senses so that we’re ready to fight or flee, compassion lowers our heart rate and prepares us to approach and soothe.

If we are to lead lives of generous love, we will need to cultivate compassion for others, particularly for those outside our circle of loved ones. The most powerful way we can do this is by listening to one another’s stories. When I was in my early 20s, I attended a conference for future leaders run by the Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Trust. It brought together people from faith communities, charities and social service organisations, sports, business, education and media. We spent a week together listening to presentations by current business, political and academic leaders who touched on issues facing Australia in the future, and then discussing our responses to those presentations. Early in the week we heard from an academic who made a strong case for throttling back Australia’s immigration program, including humanitarian-based entries. When I asked whether we, as a wealthy nation, had a responsibility to welcome refugees, the consensus was that no, we did not have a responsibility to do that. The sentiment of the room was that although my concern was very admirable, economic and environmental interest must prevail over humanitarian concerns.

Two days later a woman who had arrived in Australia as a refugee from Cambodia shared her story. It was an incredible and moving account of a human being who had faced the most violent persecution, took courageous steps to flee her country, and arrived on our shores with no English, no knowledge of our culture and virtually no money. She had struggled to make her way in Australia, but over time overcame all the obstacles in front of her and now ran a successful business. The change in sentiment of the conference delegates was astonishing. Two days earlier the delegates had seen her as a threat. Now they saw her as a person, a fellow human being who hoped and dreamed just as they did, who bled and cried just as they did and whose courage in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles commanded their respect and admiration. As they heard this refugee share her story they were drawn into her story and into her life. She became three-dimensional. This didn’t mean we abandoned our discussion of the size of Australia’s immigration program, but it did mean it was conducted from an entirely different place.

This is the key to building the compassion that drives us to generosity. When we listen to people share their stories and begin from the premise that every person on this planet is the beloved of God, we will find ourselves compelled to love them. If we remember that God longs for, waits for and believes in them, that God is working to help them grow into the people they were created to be and to build the communities they were created to live in, we will start to see people in a new light. Rather than seeing them as other, we will see them as “one of us”.

Looking for more ways to cultivate a heart of generosity? It’s not too late to join The 60/40 Challenge – 60 simple actions to end poverty in 40 days. Download the ‘End Poverty’ App now on Google Play and The App Store and register for the challenge!