It is based on the foundational truths of the scriptures to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” – and to love “your neighbor as yourself.” In three sections, Greer explores the loving compassion of the heart, soul, and mind.
The Path of Compassion delves into how we mature into ever-deepening levels of grace, making us more available with spiritual and emotional intimacy.
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Read an Excerpt
"Pretend We're Dancing"
... and a time to dance.
— Ecclesiastes 3:4b
He was a young man in his early thirties — bright, busy, developing his career with loads of potential. And his grandmother was dying. She had fought the good fight with cancer through a long and difficult struggle. The ordeal was nearing its end.
Her grandson flew to Virginia to see her. It would be their final visit.
Her pain was severe, and her body was now frail. She always had been a lady of independence and dignity. Her new reality, with its dependency and indignities, was humbling, if not at times humiliating. Bone cancer made walking impossible. She was now reliant on kind hearts and strong arms.
Her joys in life, once abundant, were narrowed to a precious few. Her heart leaped as one of those few — this handsome young grandson — came into her room. They embraced and spent the afternoon together talking and laughing.
The next morning she was scheduled for radiation to help reduce the pain. These would be her final moments in the sunlight, as she would ride the few blocks to the clinic. An attendant pushed her wheelchair to the driveway. This lady of dignity would have to be helped even the few steps from the wheelchair to the car.
Her grandson reached down and wrapped his arms around her tiny body. He lifted her in the air to carry her the short distance. His eyes brightened, and with a lilt in his voice he said, "Gran ... pretend we're dancing!"
Compassion springs from that Christlike place within every human heart.
Compassion has the spirit of wanting to bring others into the dance. The word compassion means to suffer together. To be compassionate is to offer myself from the heart. It means we care and are willing to be personal. Compassion is about getting involved. About making a difference. Compassion means to get into the ditch willingly with another and patiently, supportively endure the struggle together.
Compassion is to be willing to join others who are suffering in the desire to alleviate their pain.
It comes from the Latin pati, which has an interesting combination of meanings: to suffer, to endure, and to be patient. The word itself is formed from the Latin "to suffer" (passion) "with" (com) another. Compassion is to patiently feel the pain with another as we support and bring the aid we can.
Life can be terribly difficult. "Pretend we're dancing!" — or words like them — are ones we need to hear and be lifted by a gracious, generous spirit. Compassion involves asking another to dance. The loving invitation comes both from a place of kindness and a desire for connection. To be asked to dance is to be invited into loving relationship by one who wants to join with you on the journey.
Dance, then, wherever you may be;
— "Lord of the Dance"
Learning this dance means to live with a loving spirit. As I have come to think of it, this involves four different expressions of care. Each is valuable. Each is important. Each overlap. And each is slightly different from the others. They are:
Sympathy Empathy Compassion Loving-Kindness
Sympathy Is to Be With
The first of these expressions of care is the experience of sympathy. Sympathy is an invitation to dance with another. It is to care enough to take the time, energy, and focus to be with someone who does not need to feel alone.
Sympathy is an emotional response of concern at another's misfortune.
Now stay with me here. Let's get technical for a moment, for this distinction is important.
Presence is when we are humbly sitting with those who are hurting in the midst of what has been done and can't be fixed.
Sympathy is similar in meaning with its linguistic cousin empathy but with an important difference. The root of both words is from the Greek pathos meaning "suffering." Yet the origin of the first syllable of sympathy is from the Greek sum meaning "with another" or "together."
To be sympathetic is to sincerely care for, to be with, another person in a spirit of concern. It is supportive. It is caring. Sympathy is to be meaningfully present in the other person's life. It is to be with the other.
Gabe, a young man with a kind heart, was sitting on a park bench with a homeless woman. The woman was eating a hot dog he bought for her from a street vendor. He offered to take her to a restaurant, but she said this would be just fine, thank you. And they talked. After a pause in the conversation, he said to her, "You know, Sally, if I can help with anything you need —" She cut him off in mid-sentence, "I don't want your help!" She said, "I want your company."
Sympathy highlights the importance of presence. For those in pain, there is no greater gift we can offer than to quietly, respectfully be with them. The gift is the gift of yourself. When you are fully present, those who are hurting feel connected and no longer alone.
Presence is when we are not trying to do or fix anything but humbly sitting with them in the midst of what has been done and can't be fixed.
This idea of presence is surely a part of what Jesus meant when he said, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20). There is a supportive power felt in the company of one who brings that calming spirit of caring.
Sympathy is not to be confused with pity, which implies detachment and often condescension. It seems the understanding of the two words is often blurred, which can shortchange sympathy into nothing more than a Hallmark gesture.
How shall I put it? Pity is simply recognition of someone's anguish. There is no heart in it. Pity is an awareness of someone's distress but from a distance. There is no personal caring or desire to be involved. Pity implies the aloofness of the cliché, "There but for the grace of God go I."
Sympathy is much more. Sympathy cares.
When sympathy is felt, the other person matters. It's from the heart. It is — back to the Greek origin — a desire to be with another in that person's pain.
Sympathy is akin to the idea of consolation. Console comes from the Latin consolari — meaning "with solace." As with sympathy, to console is to be with another in order to bring comfort and support. Both terms point to the importance of presence. Being with. Showing up. Caring enough to be with someone in the valley of his or her pain is one of the most intimate gifts that can be given. And one of the most courageous.
Sympathy tells those in pain that they are not alone, and that is the exact message those who suffer most need to hear. Indeed, they are not alone.
Empathy Is to Be In
The next level of caring is empathy. As sympathy is being with each other, the focus of empathy is on the emotion that springs from within the heart of the one who cares, and cares deeply.
We look into the faces of human need, and a voice from deep within resonates and is touched. We feel it. We get it. We understand because we have, in our own way, been there — or close enough — to the distress they are feeling. Thus, knowing what it is like, we are more personally ready to join them in this compassionate dance. The more deeply I connect with myself, the more deeply I can connect with you.
So sympathy is the heartfelt dance with, and empathy, even more deeply, comes from the dance within.
Again, the word origins illuminate their meanings. The body of each word is from pathos, meaning "suffering." Each points to being in the presence of someone in pain. Whereas the sym in sympathy means "with," the em in empathy means "in." The difference is in the type of feeling and engagement. To be with those in pain is meaningful and important. But to be in the pain with them takes the caring to a new level.
Sympathy is to be with them in their suffering.
As a pastoral counselor I have the honor of being with persons in pain as they speak of the tenderest and most personal points in their lives. They sit with me and tell their stories. They talk of a relationship betrayed, or
of a life ended, or of a dream that crashed, or
You know all about this. You, too, have been there countless times as you listen to friends or colleagues. You are just as touched as they describe where they have been and the feelings that go with them still.
A friend speaks to us of the love of her life. The fluke meeting at a history lecture. The coffee afterward. The romance that followed as she got to know the man she always longed she would one day find. The marriage. Their children. The fleeting, wonderful years together.
Then the diagnosis. His steep decline.
She speaks slowly of how they attempted to savor every moment while saying goodbye. Fiercely holding on while having to let go.
We are moved by her tender story. Our focus remains on her, on her life, her marriage, and her loss, but what she has spoken touches us and resonates within us. As she begins her story, she has our full, focused attention. As she takes us through her life's journey, our hearts are moved. We are no longer just with her — we are in the experience with her.
Empathy involves suffering with another's distress. It begins with what is called "cognitive empathy," the ability to be aware of and understand another person's emotional experience. It means to see out of our own life stories what it must be like for her, as we look into the eyes of someone else and hear her story.
Cognitive empathy is to understand. Then emotional empathy is to join in her struggle and share it with her — to resonate emotionally with what she must be going through. It mirrors her pain. It experiences the hurt vicariously. We feel empathy's Greek origin empatheia — em ("in") pathos ("suffering"). As best we can, we enter her life experience. We see through her eyes, from her perspective. Our hearts go out to her.
Carl Rogers, an educator and psychologist of the twentieth century, wrote, "To sense the [other]'s private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the 'as if' quality — this is empathy." Empathy never implies a loss of boundaries, losing touch with the reality that it is the other person's dilemma and not our own. Yet it brings a personal understanding, a resonance. We get it. We identify and respond from the heart.
It was one of those moments I knew I would always remember. Our Sunday school class served lunch one Saturday at the Atlanta Day Shelter for Women and Children. We warmed up some lasagna, toasted French bread, and added a salad — then sweet tea from Chick-fil-A.
We were about to serve the food when the director of the shelter took me aside and asked if I would mind saying a blessing before the meal. Of course, I'd be glad to. She picked up a microphone and began giving directions for the lunch. Naturally, I began thinking of what I was going to pray. And suddenly it dawned on me. Standing there, about to say grace, I realized virtually nothing for which I normally thanked God or for which I prayed to God applied to a single one of these homeless families.
Virtually nothing. I remember to this day looking out at that group wondering what on earth I was going to say. There I saw a young mother, a child herself, holding her little baby. The young woman, who looked like a high school sophomore, was staring into the distance — like a frightened deer in the headlights. Homeless, with an infant. I couldn't imagine.
Just in front of me, I looked down into the dark brown eyes of a little girl, no more than three, sitting on her mother's lap. I remember her badly worn sweater. It had faded over the years but once was purple and pink. Buttons missing. Holes. Frayed. We would have been too embarrassed to have donated it to Goodwill. Yet she was wearing it. She was looking up at me — "expectantly" is the best word I know — expectantly listening for what I was about to say. This is one thing we had in common. I was looking forward to hearing what I was going to say, too.
"What on earth is about to come out of my mouth?" I was still asking myself as I was handed the microphone.
With the grace of God, somehow I got through it. The best I can recall, I prayed for food, shelter, God's nearness, and warmth on a cold winter night. It wasn't pretty, but it was serviceable, and it was over. Thank you, Lord.
I don't quite know how to say this, but I walked back from the dining room to the kitchen ... changed. It was something about that moment. Having to stand before a group of homeless women and children and put into words a prayer to God, on their behalf, that brought the struggle, the plight of their lives into focus for me like nothing before. To pray that prayer for them with integrity, without trite clichés — for just that instant, I saw life through their lenses.
Northside Drive is the long road in Atlanta that connects our two worlds. Mine is on the north end, and the shelter is on the south. I drove back up Northside that afternoon with a new understanding of the desperation of their lives. I arrived at my end of Northside with an empathy for the desperation of theirs and a new appreciation of the abundance of mine.
I left the shelter filled with women literally fighting for survival. As one of them said to me, fighting "for me and my babies." I finally got it. From that day I continue to have a deeper understanding, a profound gratitude, and the resulting feeling of wanting to give back.
Empathy means others matter to us. We care about them and allow our hearts to become involved in their lives. We then resonate with what they are feeling — whether it is hurt or frustration or fear. We are in it with them. As Father Thomas Keating put it, "If one goes to one's own heart, one will find oneself in the heart of everyone else."
Sympathy is the heartfelt awareness of another's struggle.
Empathy is the heartfelt resonance by which we are touched with that person's struggle.
Compassion Is to Make a Difference
There is then the expression of caring we know as compassion. Compassion involves each facet of sympathy and of empathy, plus the desire to do something about it. Empathy is to feel someone's pain; compassion is to feel the person's pain and to join him or her in addressing it. Compassion wants to respond. Compassion feels another's ache and begins to move into action. In this relational dance, compassion is moving from the invitation to getting on the dance floor.
Remember that the origin of compassion means "to suffer, to endure, and to be patient." To be willing to suffer is the resonance of empathy. Enduring patience is a quality of presence, a hallmark of sympathy. These are cornerstones to compassion. Yet compassion embodies these and adds still another dimension.
The definition of compassion in its current usage adds to its original meaning the words, "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it" (italics mine).
Compassion wants to make a difference.
Sympathy and empathy are essential facets of compassion, but they are its more passive elements. With full compassion we are moved emotionally and are ready to move intentionally in letting our care be felt.
You feel a mild hunger in midafternoon, and you go to the kitchen and get a banana. It is a natural response. You hardly give it a thought. Likewise, someone within your awareness feels a different need. You realize that this is your friend's first Mother's Day since her mom died. You reach for the phone to make a call or for a pen to write a note, just as naturally as you would have walked to the kitchen for your own need. Compassion in its fullness becomes natural, intuitive. We continue to love ourselves. We simply grow to include our neighbors with a similar instinctive grace.
I have heard several use the identical phrase when describing a decision made involving some caring sacrifice. "I can't not do it," is how they put it. With compassion, the empathy wells up within us, and we have to act. We "can't not do it."
Compassion comes from a deeply felt place of the heart. It is far more than simply doing good deeds. It isn't out for any recognition. It doesn't want a merit badge. It isn't about ego. In fact, compassion is hardly aware of itself. It becomes a natural response — you can do no other. You can't not do it. It is intuitively to "love our neighbor as yourself."
Excerpted from "The Path of Compassion"
Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press.
Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I Compassion of The Heart 7
1 "Pretend We're Dancing" 9
2 To Look from the Heart 25
3 To Feel from the Heart 38
4 To Listen for the Heart 47
5 The Spirit of Compassion 64
Part II Compassion of The Soul 81
6 The Gift of Grace 83
7 The Grace of the Still Small Voice 94
8 Never Beyond the Reach of God's Grace 111
9 Our Response to Grace 125
Part III Compassion of The Mind 133
10 Standing Before Your Burning Bush 135
11 Compassion and Service 144
12 Compassion and Boundaries 154
13 Compassion Toward Ourselves 163
14 Compassion and Courage 174
15 Compassion and Character 183
16 Compassion from Deeper Places 192