Zelophehad’s Daughters

Compassion

Posted by Lynnette

Some recent Facebook bloggernacle conversation has gotten me thinking once again about an issue that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a long time. (I probably started this post during the Prop 8 Blog Wars, but in classic ZD fashion, never got around to finishing it.) My original title was something like “Should We Have Compassion for Gays?” I changed it because I didn’t want to deal with the people who only read the title of the post before commenting. But that is in fact the question I want to think about.

Here’s the thing: the phrase “compassion for gays” kinda makes me cringe. Should we have compassion for women? Should we have compassion for singles? Should we have compassion for left-handed people? When it’s framed like that, the implicit message is that these are categories of people who are somehow broken and defective, and therefore in need of our compassion. I’m reminded of people expressing horror at the possibility that they are on “the list” of the compassionate service committee. And I’m guessing that most of us aren’t crazy about Mormons being labeled as a group in need of compassion (because we’re spiritually deluded and/or don’t realize we’re in a cult).

I’m also wary of the language of compassion because I’ve seen it get used in contexts where something like “basic respect for human dignity” would make a lot more sense. To say that it’s “compassionate” to advocate for equal housing and employment rights for gays, for example (as I once saw asserted in the Deseret News), sounds like an assertion that one is going above and beyond what might be expected—as if the acceptable norm would be to treat gays like second-class citizens, but because we are such good, compassionate people, we’ll opt to do better (at least once in a while.) I also think it’s telling that when a person begins a comment by saying, “let me first say that I have a great amount of compassion for gays,” the comment usually continues, “but I’m opposed to [some form of gay rights].” That sort of thing makes me suspicious of compassion.

But I’m probably going too far if I’m completely dismissing compassion as a virtue. After all, Jesus exhibited it. So maybe my question is–how do we have compassion without condescension, without a metamessage that something is wrong with the person? Perhaps there’s a difference between compassion as a response to a particular situation—seeing a person in pain, realizing that a person is having a hard time and wanting to help—and labeling a general class of people as objects of compassion. With the latter, I think we run the risk of using the language of compassion as a way of making us feel good about ourselves (e.g., I’m such a virtuous person, because I have compassion for all the unenlightened bloggers who disagree with me.)

The baptismal covenant in Mosiah 18 calls us to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with those that mourn. I like that as a possible definition of compassion. And there’s something significant in there, I think, about the need to take each other’s experience very seriously. I would guess that many if not most members of the church would agree that we could do a better job of being kind to gay individuals. But genuine compassion, I think, might require something harder. We can’t mourn with those that mourn without really listening to them—even if what they have to say isn’t easy to hear, even if it challenges some of our deeply held beliefs.

A friend of a friend commented a while ago on Facebook about how much she loved the LDS doctrine of marriage (specifically, our rejection of same-sex marriage). I’ve read more arguments about gay marriage than any sane person should, but for some reason I found the tone of this particular comment very unsettling. I’ve been trying to articulate why, and I think it has to do with what I’m saying about mourning. Because no matter how beautiful and wonderful our doctrine of marriage might be for many people, we’re paying a very high price for it. We’re losing our gay sisters and brothers. And I think the least we can do is acknowledge that cost.

I’m also thinking that it’s a problem to describe compassion in terms of personality traits or feelings. Because ideally it’s not about how we feel; it’s about how we act. The question has occasionally come up of whether it’s possible to oppose gay rights, or condemn gay relationships, while still feeling compassion for gays. But I think that’s the wrong question, both because it assumes that compassion is primarily a feeling, and because it so easily lures us into a scenario in which gays are not really people, but potential objects of our compassion. In that framework, the focus is less on the actual needs of others, and more on how we can manage to have the right feelings, as if the primary issue at stake is how we feel. The harder–but more important–question, I think, is what it means to act compassionately. And when it comes to gays, I think that as a church, we’re still pretty muddled about what that looks like.

18 Responses to “Compassion”

  1. 1.

    This is really wonderful Lynnette. Thank you.

  2. 2.

    Wow, this is fantastic. I have always cringed when people talk about “compassion for gays,” and I now I understand why. Thank you so much for posting this.

  3. 3.

    I have a dearly loved gay brother. Where I get cold is when he uses in my face angry rhetoric against the Church. Then he is lacking compassion

  4. 4.

    We should have compassion for everyone. Acknowledging that we should, and actually behaving with compassion are very different. It’s a lot harder than you think. An awful lot of the time, it requires accepting things you’d rather not, such as another person’s dignity, autonomy, pain, different path, legitimacy, ad infinitum. Most of the time we toss people a bandaid and call it good, or rather, call ourselves good.

    In my experience, it takes a lot of honesty about your motives, and quite a bit of time to experiment with the ways of serving people. Giving service, being kind and compassionate; it’s complicated, and often the hardest part is making the commitment to sticking with it while you figure out what the other person needs, and then seeing if you even have it to give. It’s a blessing that we have a lifetime for this learning curve, because we all need it.

    And one of the complicating factors is that to some degree, we’re all resistant to our learning curves.

  5. 5.

    I think that too often the idea of compassion is synonymous with being sympathetic. I just looked up a couple of definitions quickly. One says, “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others,” and the other says, “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with a wish to relieve it.” To me these sound so different, and while the first feels condescending, the second sounds exactly like what I feel compassion should be.

    The difference between “sympathetic pity” and empathy is the connection we create with the person’s situation. Empathy requires understanding others, and seeing the world through their eyes. This is the “deep understanding” of compassion. Also, truly “wish[ing] to relieve” the suffering of others is so much different than having “pity” and “concern.” The first is active and requires finding out how to relieve an individual person’s unique suffering. The second is easy, and probably demeaning.

    I agree with how you believed that compassion is about mourning with those that mourn, and bearing the burdens of others. That is a fabulous way to define it.

  6. 6.

    I loved this post. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, and it reminded me of this NPR story. I heard it back when it first aired and it really impacted me – I love the idea that we can literally, physically increase our mental ability to be compassionate and empathetic through meditation and prayer.

    And I completely agree that mourning with those that mourn feels deeper, richer, and more authentically compassionate than the language that makes “having compassion” synonymous with being tolerant or having pity. The condescending language of having compassion almost always seems to imply an awareness of hierarchy and a sense of superiority, whereas “mourning with those that mourn” implies that you really get it; that you are sitting level with them, and genuinely feeling and caring with them and for them; as though you’ve eliminated differences and become one. Compassion as Zion, perhaps.

  7. 7.

    I am a celibate gay church member in my late thirties. I want to share a vignette from my day:

    I was in the grocery store, and came across a bin full of Hot Wheels cars for $1 a piece. I had a sharp pain that I would never have sons or daughters to play Hot Wheels with.

    It’s the little things like this that the baptismal covenant in Mosiah is for…

  8. 8.

    I should clarify that when I said “them” (in “sitting level with them,” etc.) I meant “those that mourn.” I wasn’t trying to otherize anyone -quite the opposite.

  9. 9.

    Great post, Lynnette! I particularly like your point about compassion being not about what we feel but about how we act. It seems nonsensical for me to say “I have compassion for you” if I am working to increasing your suffering, for example.

    I think there’s another reason to be suspicious of general statements of having compassion for a group. I think it suggests that the person making the statement isn’t all that familiar with people in the group. We have a tendency to homogenize groups that we aren’t members of (Beatrice wrote about this recently at Both Sides Now) so when someone says they have compassion for everyone in a group (or for returning missionaries, they looooooove everyone in a group, I think it reflects more a failure of their idea of the people in the group to be complex enough rather than a real compassion or a real love. And tying it back to one of your points, Lynnette, when we don’t think about the real complexity of groups, when making statements like this, it really indicates that we’re more concerned with ourselves, with convincing ourselves that we’re truly good people, than with the group of people we supposedly have compassion for.

  10. 10.

    “…[T]here’s something significant in there, I think, about the need to take each other’s experience very seriously…. [G]enuine compassion, I think, might require something harder. We can’t mourn with those that mourn without really listening to them—even if what they have to say isn’t easy to hear, even if it challenges some of our deeply held beliefs.”

    YES!!! As a gay member of the Church, this is exactly what non-objectifying compassion means to me. From my perspective, all the pre-nineties Church rhetoric (and much of the post-nineties Church rhetoric) on homosexuality displays a clear lack of compassion in that the people who formulated it and expressed it didn’t seem to understand what exactly gay people go through or realize or appreciate the reality of their experiences.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to have the kind of compassion described by the quote above without some level of “condoning” decisions we might consider sinful according to doctrine. Gay marriage, for example, may be “wrong”–I wouldn’t presume to dictate God’s will on any issue, BUT all logic and reason and the feelings of my heart tell me it’s better than the alternatives for many, many people. If people can’t recognize that and instead refuse to recognize the realities that their gay brothers and sisters face in order to assuage the guilt or contradictory feelings of their consciences in the face of doctrine as they understand it, then how can that be considered compassion?

  11. 11.

    Excuse me for dropping in here – an occasional reader and not really a writer at all – I hope what I have written says what I want it to say – I usually don’t do so well there!

    I have three friends (two of them former friends actually) that are gay Church members.

    John served a mission, returned with honour, married (twice in fact) had kids in each marriage, and now has left his second family and I assume he is living a gay lifestyle. I say assume, as he no longer keeps in contact with me, even though I have tried many times to maintain the friendship. We were very close once, we shared a house once when he was in mission prep mode and I was a recent RM. I find it painful that he has withdrawn his friendship.

    Paul also served a mission and he and I also shared a house once. Again, we were very close friends. He also has withdrawn his friendship even though I have tried to maintain it and the loss of that friend is painful to me as well.

    Bob served in my mission. He has never married. There are things about him that to me indicate he may be gay. Sometimes you just know don’t you? He has stayed active in the Church all his life. Held significant callings for a single man. He keeps in touch with a large number of his old mission friends. He seems happy, but no doubt he has his struggles. He doesn’t talk about his situation with me, but then sexuality is not a subject that many LDS men talk about.

    What’s my point? Live the Gospel, refrain from sin, and you and everyone else around you will be happy. Is that too simplistic a way of looking at it?

  12. 12.

    Just to clarify and bring my comment back on to the compassion topic. So many (but obviously not all) problems that people have are self inflicted – the result of making bad choices. So we then show them compassion and try to help them to get back on their feet. But if they didn’t make bad choices, they would be the ones showing compassion and not requiring compassion.

  13. 13.

    Thanks, Jacob and Thursday! Glad you liked the post.

    Mommie Dearest,

    “An awful lot of the time, it requires accepting things you’d rather not, such as another person’s dignity, autonomy, pain, different path, legitimacy, ad infinitum. Most of the time we toss people a bandaid and call it good, or rather, call ourselves good.”

    Very well put. (And I like your point that it’s good we have a lifetime to work on this, because it can be crazy hard.)

    Creatrix, exactly. That difference between “sympathetic pity” and empathy is a big part of what I’m trying to get at. I especially like your point that the latter is non-generic, that it requires you to engage a person’s unique situation. You can have sympathy for a category of people, I think, but you can only have genuine empathy for individuals.

    galdralag, that’s fascinating! It reminds me (kind of tangentially) of research indicating that people who read fiction are more empathetic, because it requires you to put yourself in the shoes of another person.

    “The condescending language of having compassion almost always seems to imply an awareness of hierarchy and a sense of superiority, whereas “mourning with those that mourn” implies that you really get it; that you are sitting level with them.”

    Yes. That.

    Jeremiah, I like that point about the little things. Mourning with those that mourn is often framed in terms of large, broad challenges—but we experience those challenges in concrete, day-to-day details.

    Ziff, that’s a great point about our tendency to homogenize groups–which, going back to what Creatrix said, lends itself to sympathy more than empathy.

    Trev, thanks for sharing your perspective on this.

    “If people can’t recognize that and instead refuse to recognize the realities that their gay brothers and sisters face in order to assuage the guilt or contradictory feelings of their consciences in the face of doctrine as they understand it, then how can that be considered compassion?”

    Exactly. And that question really gets to the heart of where I think our rhetoric about gays is deeply problematic. It includes a lot about reaching out with compassion and love, but it’s a little fuzzy when it comes to seriously grappling with the realities faced by gay individuals in the church. I suspect the latter sparks too much cognitive dissonance: we want to see ourselves as loving and compassionate, so it’s tempting to downplay any evidence that challenges that.

  14. 14.

    Muzz,

    So many (but obviously not all) problems that people have are self inflicted – the result of making bad choices. So we then show them compassion and try to help them to get back on their feet. But if they didn’t make bad choices, they would be the ones showing compassion and not requiring compassion.

    I have a somewhat different take on this. I don’t think we can split the world into the people requiring compassion and the people showing it. Because all of us are sinners. All of us make bad choices. And all of us need compassion. That framework in which the ones who didn’t make bad choices show compassion to the ones who did is actually part of what I’m objecting to in this post. Because I don’t think that that kind of compassion, that stems from a position of presumed moral superiority, is actually helpful to anyone.

  15. 15.

    I’d equate compassion with mercy. As ways Jesus looks on all of us. I was compassionate service leader for oh, a total of 10 years? (Three different times). I never thought of the title until now. It was a wonderful calling because I saw the best of our ward. People seldom said no to my requests to help others in our ward who were going through tough times, whether it was adapting to a new baby or trips to the doctor, cleaning and caring for children. But it’s easy to make a casserole or do somebody’s laundry or clean their house. Liking people who are hard to like, being their friend can be really hard sometimes. I like almost every gay person I know personally, but that woman who annoyingly shakes everyone’s hand every Sunday, calling me “Sister Ball.” Not so much. God had helped me a bit lately by providing insight into other peoples’ hearts, their despair and anxiety. For instance, I was so mad at a guy who was tailgating me a few weeks ago and poof! God gave me a glimpse of his heart. I’m serious, guys, I didn’t even ask for this blessing, it’s happened in very dramatic ways THREE times now! It tends to take the wind out of one’s sails.

    But, going back to Jesus, well, He’s perfect and it’s easier for him to like us all than it is for all of us to like everybody. But I still need to remind myself that showing another person genuine sincere “like” is a pretty compassionate thing to do.

  16. 16.

    Thanks for your insight there Lynnette #14. That’s a good way of looking at it. Broader than my narrow way! Very helpful!

  17. 17.

    Late to the party, but I’ve been thinking about this myself for awhile. It’s hard to be the recipient of someone else’s compassion, which I think is why we are sensitive and don’t want to be condescending in offering it. I had a friend many years ago, much older and much maler than I am, who when I was going through a desperately difficult combination of horrendous situations (have I added enough intensifier there?) commented that “we all have times where our nose is pressed against the glass.” At the time I felt I could have used something a little more … compassionate … than that, but I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve looked at other people with “mourning with you” eyes more easily because it’s true, we do all have times where our nose is pressed against the glass. It isn’t about relative position, but about connection. I am inseparable from you when you suffer, and, sadly, when I suffer, I am also inseparable from others. I can feel guilty about that, run from that, try to put on a brave face about that, or I can open up and accept others’ compassion – their love. It’s getting easier. I don’t think we will otherize others with our compassion if we don’t otherize others in our thinking.

  18. 18.

    I echo the sentiment about Mosiah 18. It’s not “mourn with those who mourn if you agree that their reason for mourning is legitimate”. It’s just plain “mourn with those who mourn”. And I agree that such compassion requires non-judgmental, open, careful listening.

    I would add 1st Corinthians 12:26 to the pot: “So now, when one member shall suffer, all of them shall share the pain. And if one member rejoices, all the members shall rejoice.” (Aramaic Bible in plain English version)

    Which leads me to believe that I must also fully face the challenge of being compassionate towards people who rejoice in things they love but whose choices I may feel are not quite right, be they my neighbor who is exited about traveling to NY to marry her girlfriend or the woman who, in her excitement, chooses to express her love of LDS marriage on facebook.

    It’s easier for me to see and address my lack of compassion for the people in society who are struggling with sorrows than it is for me to see and address my lack of compassion for people who are rejoicing. And it takes real, genuine compassion to be able to genuinely love and listen to and understand both when they are at odds with each other. But that’s my goal.

Leave a Reply