Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Compassion Wake Up Call

by Aly Lewis

Most of the time, I think I’m pretty great. You know, I’m relatively nice (aside from my biting sarcasm), I’ve never killed anybody (at least not to my knowledge) and on top of all the sugar and spice and everything nice, I work at a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of the voiceless, forgotten, and overlooked rural poor. I am just stacking up those good person points.

So imagine my surprise when I was reading Compassion by Henri Nouwen—a book I thought would be about fostering all of this happy, selfless, compassion inside of me—and in the preface, before the book even starts to get underway, he dashes my hopes that people are naturally selfless and compassionate. In fact, he says, “For those who do not live in a dream world and keep their eyes open to the facts of life, compassion can at most be a small and subservient part of our competitive existence.”

At first I was slightly offended, thinking Maybe other people aren’t naturally compassionate, but not me, I am selfless and giving and have a heart of gold.

Then I realized I was guilty as charged: I had turned compassion into a competition. Appearing more compassionate than others is a vital part of my identity; however, being truly compassionate “would require giving up the dividing lines and relinquishing differences and distinctions. And that would mean losing our identities.”

Talk about a good kick in the compassion pants.

What I can rest assured in, however, is the idea that regardless of where I fall on the compassion continuum, there is always room to grow and improve. And ultimately, “I am not the esteem I can collect through competition, but the love I have freely received from God.”


  1. I will also take a kick in the compassion pants. Thanks for the post Aly

  2. Hmmm. Good thoughts. Ever since reading about our sinful "God Complexes" (Myers: Walking with the Poor) that we often have when relating to the poor or trying to "change the world" I am always wondering how much of my desire to serve or to work with the poor is just my sinful desire to act as a god in the life of someone else (I.e. "I have to do this for you because you are so helpless but I am not, so please, you need me..."), and how much is true compassion. I think that in this fallen world it will be nearly impossible to tell where even our own intentiaons really fall. The line between compassion and narcissism are really blurred.

  3. Thanks for the comments everyone! I will post some more of my thoughts (and quotes) as I read more.

    Sarah, I definitely agree there is a fine line between compassion and narcissism, although I find it hard to criticize compassionate acts done with ulterior motives. As long as we don't get too puffed up with our own "goodness" I really believe that acting in compassionate ways (even if we don't feel particularly compassionate or our motives are blurred) can radically transform our own hearts and move us closer to true compassion. I guess I'm a "fake it till you make it" kind of person.


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