I think that compassion also is often linked to beauty — and by that I mean a willingness to see beauty in the other, not just what it is about them that might need helping.
I love it that my Muslim conversation partners often speak of beauty as a core moral value. And in that light, for the religious, compassion also brings us into the territory of mystery — encouraging us not just to see beauty, but perhaps also to look for the face of God in the moment of suffering, in the face of a stranger, in the face of the vibrant religious other.
I’m not sure if I can show you what tolerance looks like, but I can show you what compassion looks like — because it is visible. When we see it, we recognize it and it changes the way we think about what is doable, what is possible.
It is so important when we’re communicating big ideas — but especially a big spiritual idea like compassion — to root it as we present it to others in space and time and flesh and blood — the color and complexity of life.
And compassion does seek physicality. I first started to learn this most vividly from Matthew Sanford. And I don’t imagine that you will realize this when you look at this photograph of him, but he’s paraplegic. He’s been paralyzed from the waist down since he was 13, in a car crash that killed his father and his sister.
Matthew’s legs don’t work, and he’ll never walk again, — and he does experience this as an “and” rather than a “but” — and he experiences himself to be healed and whole.
And as a teacher of yoga, he brings that experience to others across the spectrum of ability and disability, health, illness and aging. He says that he’s just at an extreme end of the spectrum we’re all on. He’s doing some amazing work now with veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
And Matthew has made this remarkable observation that I’m just going to offer you and let it sit. I can’t quite explain it, and he can’t either. But he says that he has yet to experience someone who became more aware of their body, in all its frailty and its grace, without, at the same time, becoming more compassionate towards all of life.
Compassion also looks like this. This is Jean Vanier. Jean Vanier helped found the L’Arche communities, which you can now find all over the world, communities centered around life with people with mental disabilities — mostly Down syndrome.
The communities that Jean Vanier founded, like Jean Vanier himself, exude tenderness. “Tender” is another word I would love to spend some time resurrecting.
We spend so much time in this culture being driven and aggressive, and I spend a lot of time being those things too. And compassion can also have those qualities. But again and again, lived compassion brings us back to the wisdom of tenderness.
Jean Vanier says that his work, like the work of other people — his great, beloved, late friend Mother Teresa — is never in the first instance about changing the world; it’s in the first instance about changing ourselves.
He says that what they do with L’Arche is not a solution, but a sign. Compassion is rarely a solution, but it is always a sign of a deeper reality, of deeper human possibilities.
And compassion is unleashed in wider and wider circles by signs and stories, never by statistics and strategies. We need those things too, but we’re also bumping up against their limits.
And at the same time that we are doing that, I think we are rediscovering the power of story — that as human beings, we need stories to survive, to flourish, to change.
Our traditions have always known this, and that is why they have always cultivated stories at their heart and carried them forward in time for us.
There is, of course, a story behind the key moral longing and commandment of Judaism to repair the world — tikkun olam. And I’ll never forget hearing that story from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who told it to me as her grandfather told it to her, that in the beginning of the Creation something happened and the original light of the universe was shattered into countless pieces.
It lodged as shards inside every aspect of the Creation. And that the highest human calling is to look for this light, to point at it when we see it, to gather it up, and in so doing, to repair the world.
Now this might sound like a fanciful tale. Some of my fellow journalists might interpret it that way. Rachel Naomi Remen says this is an important and empowering story for our time, because this story insists that each and every one of us, frail and flawed as we may be, inadequate as we may feel, has exactly what’s needed to help repair the part of the world that we can see and touch.
Stories like this, signs like this, are practical tools in a world longing to bring compassion to abundant images of suffering that can otherwise overwhelm us.