Perspective: 4 Ways to Model Compassion

We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.  ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Fall came coldly and quickly for us in the high, dry mountain valley. That meant exploding tones of burgundy, lemon, and persimmon among aspens and cottonwoods — and it meant potato harvest.

That’s why my mama was in the field: She was driving a truck while my daddy drove the tractor that pulled the harvester. But she couldn’t imagine what we were doing when she looked back toward the house. Aunt Irene was driving my 7-year-old brother and 9-year-old me around the loop of our driveway, onto the road, past the yard, again and again.

Earlier, Daddy had parked a flat hay wagon in the yard facing the road. And that afternoon the other three of us hauled from our fading garden brittle corn stalks, lopsided pumpkins, and shriveling squash — perfect for making our own autumn art installation (ahem). So when my mama saw us, we were driving past our “exhibit” to see it from the perspective of passersby.

I don’t remember if we begged Aunt Irene to do it or if she, in her generous aunt-ness, led the charge. But I do remember it being one of the first times I understood the importance of looking at something from another’s vantage point.

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Developing a truly perceptive perspective goes deeper than the old maxim, “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” We can’t ever fully step into the heart, mind, or body of another. The best we can do is make every effort to go beyond imagining their path to understanding how our stories are similar, how they connect — to grow and unify through those bonds.

How? There’s nothing new under the sun; ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom, and He’ll show you opportunities every day. Still, four things are consistent: live in humility, give and receive grace, don’t demand conformity, recognize commonality.

1. Live in humility.

Humility. Knowing well that the hardships of life touch us all, so it’s our privilege to live with open hands, open hearts. Younger kids can be our best examples here. For the most part, they go about their day, their play, their interactions with a growing awareness that not everyone is the same — but with a natural give-and-take rhythm of filling in the gaps.

My daddy went to the Mt. Pleasant one-room school, and he and Bobby were the only first-graders that year. Nobody in the area was well-off, but Bobby’s family struggled a bit more. While Daddy brought home-raised roast beef on homemade whole wheat bread, Bobby had store-bought baloney on white.

My grandma wouldn’t deign to buy meat or bread from the store, so Daddy wasn’t just a little enamored with Bobby’s lunch. And I’m gonna guess Bobby thought thick-cut roast beef on gorgeous honey-browned bread looked pretty good. Daddy offered to trade sandwiches with Bobby, and they made that trade nearly every day.

Two little boys with a mutual unspoken understanding that each had what the other needed — “need” is the same as “want” to a 6-year-old, you know. But Bobby really did need that trade for a chance at a healthier future, though neither boy could have put it into words.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around,” said Leo Buscaglia.

Keep the perspective that we each are of infinite worth to our Creator, so our interactions with others should bear witness to that truth. No one is more, no one is less.

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2. Give and receive grace.

Be still my heart. I was in the 3rd grade when Aunt Irene made me a pair of purple jeans with embroidery on the back pockets. Most kids in our agricultural community wore hand-me-downs, and we didn’t think anything of it. But still, having something brand new was a treat. And Aunt Irene had thought of me — all the way from Papua New Guinea where she served as a linguist with Wycliffe.

I ran to my room to change … and the jeans were too small. In the time Aunt Irene had last been home on furlough, I’d grown more than she expected. That was insult enough. Even worse was having to give my beautiful jeans to a friend who could wear them. I was furious with Aunt Irene for not thinking about the difference time would make, and mad at my friend that she got my present.

Thankfully, I never voiced my frustration to my aunt or my friend. But I wish I could have told my younger self to take the larger, longer view. To consider the love behind the gift — a homesick aunt doing the best she could to stay involved in her niece’s life from thousands of miles away. To think how my friend got new clothes even less often than I, and it was more than good for her to enjoy those purple jeans.

C.S. Lewis said, “It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good.”

Keep the perspective that reacting with grace softens a harsh world.

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3. Don’t demand conformity …

Heather Holleman writes of taking a walk with her school-aged daughter. “And do you know what?” said her daughter:

I shouldn’t worry if other girls seem so happy and have wonderful things happen to them. It’s like they have sunshine in their lives every day. I get jealous of all that sunshine. I have dark days. … And then I thought of the gardener and the vine. … When I am having dark days, I remember that some plants need shade to grow best. My life may need more shade than others, and this is how I’ll grow.

We must never dare to presume what others are going through, what they need to flourish, to heal — that their story is in any way similar to our own. We try to categorize experiences into tidy boxes we think we all can relate to: sorrow, joy, lack, abundance, hope, despair, pain, death, gratitude. But such a simplistic attempt doesn’t allow for the influence or impact of personal dreams, actualities, defeats, losses.

Douglas Groothuis’ wife is fading from progressive dementia. He writes, “I know my own dementia-shaped bitterness. I know nothing of the wounded hearts of those who lose children to disease or disaster.” Learning to grieve with others instead of demanding their sorrow look a certain way, in part, means learning “to sit with our ignorance instead of spewing forth.”

The only thing we can authoritatively say is this: “The normal Christian life is embattled.” Beyond that, remember God created each of us uniquely. We can’t demand — we shouldn’t even ask or expect — that someone do exactly as we do.

Keep the perspective that the soul standing before you is traveling their journey. Not yours. Walk alongside; don’t push, don’t pull.

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4. … But do recognize commonality.

Our team facilitator said, “Those of you who have children understand.” My heart sank. At the outset, the disclaimer wasn’t necessary. The point the leader was making applied generally to all adults. But on a personal level, that individual knew I was the only person in the group without kids. They also knew my background as a teacher and that I certainly did have children, even if not my own flesh and blood.

Maybe that individual thought they were being kind to acknowledge my circumstances. Unfortunately, their comment marginalized me and dismissed the truth that I could relate — even if I didn’t match their definition of “parent.”

Granted, we don’t always have the luxury of knowing someone’s story. Whether we do or not, though, sometimes it’s wiser to speak with embrace. We worry so much about accidentally offending someone that we wind up hurting them more deeply. Be sensitive and sincere, of course. But trust that adults will maturely parse out what fits and what to let go. (You know that the less-than-mature ones will confront you anyway!)

Keep the perspective that there is much we hold in common simply because we are human. In your interactions today, may you have eyes to see — and courage to act on the truth — that we are more similar than we are different:

Human beings are hungry for God; they long to live lives filled with purpose and love. They want to be able to support their families; they want to be able to work; they want to be able to give back and to be good, noble people. They want to feel important and needed and beautiful. Children want to play, eat, learn, and be loved. We are all the same. We do not live in different worlds; we live in the same world. (Katie Davis Majors)

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