Lent 2C – Reflections on Compassion Luke 13:31-36
“They are just looking for [someone] to embrace them and love them…” said Dr. James Doty, tearfully. He was talking to Krista Tippett in last week’s “On Being” broadcast. Dr. Doty is a neuroscientist, brain surgeon, and the head of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. He is also the author of a memoir – Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart.
Doty was talking about gang members. It was a startling moment. Like Greg Boyle describes in his book Tattoos on the Heart, he tries to give the boys a new context, show them a different world and how they do in fact have potential. Here is the whole quote… “If you don’t write them off as gang members, regardless of how many tattoos they have, how threatening they may superficially appear, when you give them the gift of recognizing their humanity, everything changes… What’s so sad is that, you see these kids, they may be 18 or 19 years old, but when you talk with them and sit with them and listen to how much they have suffered, in many ways they are still children…[long pause, he couldn’t go on]… They are just looking for [someone] to embrace them and love them…[long pause]… It can be extraordinary!”
Dr. Doty was so choked up that he could not talk because he KNEW in his heart what those boys were facing. Earlier in the interview he had spoken about his life – a childhood filled with despair and deprivation, with an alcoholic father and an incapacitated mother. He describes himself then as a disheveled adolescent, headed for delinquency, until one summer at the age of 12, when he went into a magic shop and met an elder woman named Ruth who for the next six weeks, taught him about “another kind of magic.” Before Ruth, Doty said he saw only limited to no possibilities. After the experience of Ruth, which was strong and deep and powerful, there was hope. Although the conditions of his life were no different, the way he saw it, changed dramatically. “Rather than being blown by an ill-wind, suddenly anything and everything was possible.” he said “In the time I was with her what she taught me, re-wired my brain.”
After lots of scientific discussion to neurologically prove his point, at the end of the interview, Krista Tippet asks about opening the heart, something he had written about – “It can hurt to go through life with your heart open…” says Tippett. “You open yourself to more joy, but also more pain.” Doty responds… “Anyone who has lived a life, which means you have had pain and suffering, [can] realize that there is a gift in the pain and suffering. Because what it allows you to do is to see the reality that this is part of life, a meaningful life. When you are able to take that pain and suffering and use it not to hide from the world, not to be afraid of every interaction, but to use it to say yes, it is hard sometimes, but I have learned so many lessons and have become more appreciative and have more gratitude and see in so many examples, how in face of the greatest adversity, people have shown their greatest humanity… when you recognize this, that is when you are most proud to be a member of the human species.”
Finally, Doty suggests that we are entering an age of compassion (vs enlightenment). He encourages us to appreciate that every day we have the capacity through our actions to improve the life of at least one person, with even something as simple as a smile. He believes that by intervening, our little ripples can create a tsunami of compassion. In the end he says, it is the path that will lead us out of darkness into light.
Another quick story and a bit of my faith journey of late…
In offering reflections at Trinity, you have often heard me refer to experiences with women at the (Wisdom’s Women) Center. The one on my mind at the moment is the woman I prayed for last week. I will call her Mary. She is suffering now from advanced alcoholism. She is not very old. In the rare moments I have experienced her sober, I have seen a tender, kind, person with a sharp sense of humor. The last time she was at the Center, a couple of days before the Christmas holiday, she came looking for gifts for her children (who are not in her custody). Mary started drinking as a pre-teen and even with her liver failing, she continues to drink. Something incredibly harsh must have happened to her in her early life. Whatever it was, that she carries it with her still, brings me, like Dr. Doty, to tears. All I want to do is “gather her as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” She knows at least that in the Center she has a place to go that welcomes and cares about her. I hope it has given her comfort and made her life better.
Although Mary’s early life was likely very different from mine, her situation brings to consciousness feelings I have carried from a childhood of loneliness and abandonment. A likely difference between me and Mary, however, is that my siblings and I were lucky enough to have a safe and loving environment holding us through trauma surrounding my dad’s Parkinson’s disease. (He was diagnosed when I was 6, the eldest of 2 children and mom was pregnant with my baby brother). Despite the frequent upheavals, including 3 brain surgeries and the resulting changes and long parental absences, a remarkable larger community was there. Neighbors and church members filled the void that was left by chaos in our family life. It is the same kind of community care we offer each other and our neighbors here at Trinity. Those people gathered us under their wings. It helped us cope and kept us from falling apart. Yet, even with that support, to this day I bear scars that I am only now able to bring to light and heal. It is only now, fifty years later that I can finally recall and safely face those feelings. (No wonder that Mary, without that support, couldn’t.) It is why I need to make a pilgrimage back to my hometown this summer. It will be a trip to consciously revisit and transcend those memories, and be present there in gratitude.
A lot of commentary I read about this week’s Gospel focused on how Jesus, in his lament over Jerusalem, was expressing sadness that we are unwilling to accept all that God desires for us. They say Jesus is exasperated that we continue to sin, over and over again, when instead we could be seeking out the desires of God and resting under the shadow of God’s wings, letting God protect and nurture us.
I want to suggest instead that in his lament, Jesus is showing us how to respond to the trauma, turmoil, and tragedies of life that bring great suffering and sadness. Perhaps his lament was heart-felt sorrow for a population of God’s people who were sorely oppressed by brutal Roman occupation that included collaborators the likes of Herod, the fox. In the face of it, Jesus’ response is one of compassion… I imagine him standing there overlooking Jerusalem, with tears, and with a great sigh, speaking from an ache in his heart: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Young James Doty, Mary, Klara… Lewiston, Augusta, Washington, Beirut, Damascus…
Compassion – The classic explanation is “feeling with” someone. But it is more… One of the links on last week’s On-Being website was to an interview with another neuroscientist, Richard Davidson who has studied the minds of Buddhist monks. He sees compassion as “A motivational state associated with the propensity to relieve the suffering of others.” It can be learned, he says, and is best taught by embodying it, by being it. He also notes that we are returning to an ancient Egyptian understanding of the heart as an organ of intelligence that is connected to the brain. To him, compassion is heart informed and is one of the higher marks of being human. It is what Mary likely did not have in her childhood, but what my siblings and I were lucky enough to know.
After his lament over Jerusalem, Jesus has three days and much work to finish in the journey to Jerusalem and the cross. In Luke, those days are filled with teachings, sayings, parables, healing, but also compassionate encounters with children, a blind beggar and the tax collector Zaccheus. Here at the end, as in his whole ministry, Jesus walks the road as the incarnate compassion of God. (Monica Hellwig)
As we walk today toward the crucifixion and resurrection, may we notice our heart aches and follow where our hearts lead us. During the journey through Lent may we notice when compassionate acts may be called for. And in the way of Jesus, may we open our hearts so we become like a mother hen who shelters those who are most vulnerable under our wings.