I was driving my old van behind another van which seemed to be pulling over to the side of the road. I pulled out to drive passed him, but as I accelerated to go past, he suddenly, without warning did a right hand turn colliding with me. It was obvious that he had been completely unaware that I was behind him! He was in his own wee world, oblivious to other traffic on the road. The other day I followed a car looking for a shop. Again the driver was concentrating on his world, oblivious to the fact that there was a line up of cars behind wanting to move on. We do this while driving, we get so wrapped in our own world the needs of others are not seen. My dad started to teach me to drive. He told me "the driver's eyes should keep doing a circuit, his speedometer, a distance look ahead, to the sides, his rear vision mirrors and back to an imaginary track he wants his vehicle to go in." "As you drive," he said, "be completely aware of all that is going on around you."
Compassionate people widen their circle of concern.
I was talking to a church group about the Night Shelter work and our drop-in centre and mentioning the plight of long term unemployed people and of those with mental health issues. They walk the streets of our town. We have 40 - 50 of them in our drop-in every Friday night. The people in the group asked, "Where are these people? I don't see them?" I was talking to a very generous man about donating to the Night Shelter. His comment was that his rich friends don't see the need. "I see the need and am sympathetic because I have a son who battles mental health issues." he said, "But most of these people are oblivious to the need in Dunedin." If we are to be compassionate people we widen the circle to seek to be aware of, and feel empathy for a wider group of people than just us and our family.
An historical NZ example...
New Zealand was once divided into several provinces, each of which had a governing group. In 1878 the "Abolition of the Provinces Bill" was passed, making us one country with one parliament. While that was being debated a politician by the name of Edward Stafford said this about when he led parliament.
"From that moment, I determined to be a New Zealander. I determined to neither know Auckland nor Nelson, nor Wellington, nor Otago, ( i.e. the provinces) and it has been a matter of reproach to me that I have no local sympathy. I have a great deal higher sympathy than that of mere locality. I can claim to have done something towards the prosperity, the unity and the future greatness of a country which has a natural geographical boundary....."
He had let go of his former loyalty to the locality he lived in, and decided to look at what was good for the whole of New Zealand. He had a broader, wider, more inclusive perspective of the world. The ultimate in this direction is to become a citizen of the whole world and recognise our unity and solidarity across all the boundaries we have. Jesus smashed the cultural, religious and racial boundaries of his day. The early Church went on to express the same style of life.
Compassion involves living this way...
Most people are good. But as good as we may be, we often choose to confine our compassion and empathy to a restricted group of people. Our family. The people of our "set". Our nationality. But truly compassionate people widen their circle of compassion and empathy. They live like my father wanted me to drive, keeping "aware of all that is going on around you." They feel for and sense a connection with people who are different or distant.
Compassion makes you happy
Roko Belic made a documentary entitled "Happy". It took him five years and led him to around fourteen different countries encountering people in all sorts of life circumstances. He found that "happiness" was very much tied to our values. If we value extrinsic values - money, possession, consumption, power, fame and good looks, - and prioritise these in our lives we are less likely to be happy. However, if we value intrinsic values - cooperation, compassion, wanting to make the world a better place, friendship, community and connection - we are much more likely to live consistently happier lives. Jesus said, "If you lose your life, you will find it." and "In giving you receive".
I find that the people I deal with are often messed up, because they do not have "a great deal higher sympathy" than themselves or their family. Those who are happiest are the ones who give themselves in service. Roko Belic's film ends with the story of a rich banker. He gave up a life of luxury to live in India working for Mother Teresa's movement there. After 17 years of this he was asked why he continued to live this seemingly self denying life-style. His answer - "Because it makes me happy."