A box of compassion, tied with a bow | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | Dec 22, 2016

Compassion (noun): sympathetic consciousness of others' distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.

In the midst of the twinkling lights, lists of to-dos, and the general chaos of the holidays, we strive to remember the reason for the season.

Days like last Saturday in Edmonds seem like a gift. I strolled from one shop to another, snow flurries in the air, while the holiday trolley jingled along from stop to stop. And there at the corner of Fifth and Main, a man was sitting in a wheelchair, holding a sign I could only partially read: “Rent is Due, Can’t Work … ”

It felt like someone abruptly stopped the record playing and scratched the needle across the vinyl.

These moments are becoming part of our lives, familiar. Problems as large as homelessness, poverty and mental illness seem overwhelming, and the gravity of the challenge is sometimes applied to the person in front of us who needs help.

Evolutionary psychology says we are compassionate because we evolved to be so. Humans cannot survive alone, and helping another member of the tribe one day made it more likely that he or she would help you the next. Along with the palpable evolutionary benefits of compassion, humans also developed in environments where we better understood the conditions others were living under.

We knew all members of a community more personally than we can now – we looked each other in the eye on good days and bad days.

I truly believe that we try to do the right thing. People give time and money, impart kindness through simple acts, and create real change through hard work and commitment.

I also spend darker times thinking of when I did not help someone who needed me. Not only the nameless person, but also someone I love more than words can express. In one moment, I did not try to alleviate the fear and sadness where he was, and saw only the pain and discomfort I felt. I only got half way through the definition of compassion – the sympathy did not reach through to alleviate the distress.

There is always a story on the other side of need.

So this year, with major holidays overlapping in December (Christmas, Hanukkah, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), it is reassuring that the major religions also intersect over the priority of compassion. In Christianity, Jesus is considered the incarnate compassion of God, and Paul and Luke say we have to exercise the compassion of Christ.

Deuteronomy quotes Moses in the Jewish Torah, and obligates us to care for those without family support, such as widows, orphans and resident aliens. While in Islam, my understanding is that one of the most frequently used words is “compassion,” and it teaches that our interconnectedness as people is a direct representation of our unity with God.

Telling stories is another way to capture compassion.

In “Franny and Zooey,” J.D. Salinger recounts a conversation between a sister and brother as one goes through an existential crisis, trying to understand how to be meaningful in a world of selfishness. Eventually they conclude together that “there isn’t a person out there” not deserving of attention and love and acting toward all that way will give you hope.

John Lennon was directive with, “Better recognize your brother, he’s everyone you meet.”

And from the great Leonard Cohen, who we lost in 2016: “Now I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair, with a love so vast and so shattered, it will reach you everywhere.”


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