parker palmer

Compassion, Charity, Apathy

Every thoughtful activist knows how the desire for success and the fear of failure can pervert our actions and even lead to fraud, causing us to settle for the appearance of victory rather than persisting for deep and lasting change.  When we are trapped in the dualism of winning and losing, we are possessed by false powers. – Parker Palmer (The Promise of Paradox)

For years I intentionally kept loose change and a few dollar bills in my car at all times so that I’d have something to give panhandlers at stop lights.  It felt good to hand someone something of value and say, “God bless.”  I was convinced that this was the behavior a good Christian and a giving person.  It gave me the sense that I was generous, kind and Godly.  It was a convenient way of satisfying any lingering guilt I may have had about my lack of participation in one of the central tenets of Christianity: To love one’s neighbor as oneself.  But a couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a good friend who challenged me to see things differently.  He talked convincingly about the difference between compassion and charity.  He argued for the need to stop handing out charity and instead, to step out of the car and sit with people, to feel a bit of their reality.  He pointed out that compassion is different from charity because compassion requires that we suffer with (this is what the word compassion literally means) those in need, rather than simply providing a temporary physical fix from the distant comfort of our own privileged realities.

This conversation began reshaping my view on what I’d been doing with my loose change.  My ideology began breaking at the seams and what I’d thought was good and kind began to seem lazy and arrogant.  I stopped handing out change to panhandlers.  But instead of refocusing my efforts on a more intentional expression of compassion toward those in need, I simply stopped doing anything at all.  The realization that what I’d been doing was not the best option threw me into a cycle of non-action, rather than reoriented action.  Not handing out loose change evolved into not smiling, not having my window rolled down, and eventually, not caring.  Rather than exchanging charity for compassion, I instead exchanged charity for apathy.  And here is what I’ve come to understand through this process.

Charity is convenient and self-centered. 

Apathy is comfortable and self-absorbed. 

Compassion is costly and selfless.

We’ve all heard it a million times: It is better to give than to receive.  The saying is absolutely true, but not in some intellectually esoteric way.  It’s universally true in its simplicity.  Getting is nice, but giving makes us feel great.  Particularly in giving to those with needs greater than our own, if we are not careful it is possible to attain a sort of twisted satisfaction.  The sin in us whispers gently that we as givers are somehow better, more accomplished, and of more worth than those who receive.  This is a subtly poisonous paradigm of winners and losers.  And I believe that it is from this place that charity most often flows.  Charity can split us.  Those who give charity are the winners, those who receive charity are the losers who have been uplifted to a place of temporal mediocrity by the winners.

But compassion shatters this paradigm.  Compassion forces us to step into the realities of others.  Compassion is loving others as we love ourselves.  Maybe loving them more than we love ourselves.  Compassion is costly and painful and often without immediate results.  Compassion doesn’t make us feel like winners.  Instead, it makes us feel human.  Compassion reveals the beauty of humanity hidden behind the cracked facades of socioeconomic, ethnic, and political divisions.  As Parker Palmer writes, compassion pushes us past a desire for the appearance of victory and begins to burn us up with a desire for deep and lasting change.

This is the time of year when we remember and celebrate the coming of God to earth in the flesh of Jesus, the most subversive and provocative act of compassion in the history of the world.  God did not extend convenient charity to us, giving us a tidy little handout.  And he certainly did not sit comfortably in apathy, doing nothing.  God, who ought to be the most self-absorbed, self-centered entity in the universe, instead gave selflessly.  And his gift of compassion was costly.  Jesus stepped into our reality and suffered on our behalf.  He went to the grave and crushed it for us.  Christmas and Easter are two ends of the same story.  My hope is that we, as the people of God and followers of Jesus, would choose this sort of subversive, provocative compassion in our own lives.  Find a place to step into the reality of another.  Settle in there.  Experience their hurts, frustrations, and suffering.  Refuse apathy and charity.  Be compassionate.