We all want to live in a more compassionate world, don’t we? Who wouldn’t want more compassion, kindness, and graciousness in our community and world? And with such horrific stories reported daily in the press about terrible self-centeredness, aggression, brutality, and cruelty it is all the more reason to engage in an all-out effort to do whatever we can to support compassionate behavior. Right?
But what is our part in creating a more compassionate world? We might desire compassion and kindness from others but do we offer it ourselves? How far are we willing to go to be compassionate?
I was struck recently by the message of an engaging and very articulate homeless activist,Matthew Works(link is external), who spent about a month giving talks here at Santa Clara University. His message, in a nutshell, is that the faith community, most especially Christian churches from all of the various denominations, should routinely open their doors to the homeless for shelter. He complains that as a homeless person himself (from Boston which is certainly a challenging environment for living outdoors, especially this winter), too often Church communities open their doors to worshipers during scheduled services yet lock them tight when their services are over leaving those who truly need shelter and support, the homeless, out in the cold. He makes a good and perhaps prophetic point: faith communities who take their religious and spiritual beliefs and perspective seriously should do much more to help the homeless and let their church buildings be safe havens for those most in need. After all, regardless of your religious affiliation what do you think would please God more? Beautiful worship and liturgical services or caring for those who suffer such as the homeless?
It is a terrible tragedy when those who suffer the most and have no shelter are asked to fend for themselves while so many people of faith have so many (and perhaps too many) material resources. Of course, homelessness is a highly complex problem without simple solutions. But his point begs the question regarding what really is the purpose of religious communities when so many people are sadly at risk for violence, suffering, and death without adequate shelter in communities across the country.
It is very easy to talk a good line about compassion but it is very challenging to actually perform compassionate acts. While homelessness may be just one of numerous problems needing more compassion it well illustrates the startling contradictions of what we espouse and what we actually do. If we truly believe that we need more compassion and kindness in our communities what are we really willing to do to achieve this ideal? Think about it. I know it is hard to be more compassionate for a multiple set of reasons and certainly people have busy lives but if we stop and think about it carefully we may find ways to develop a more compassionate world that we all vitally need.
So what about you? How do you demonstrate compassion? Is it enough? How much is enough anyway? What do you think?
Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J. University Professor and professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.
This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.