Compassion over the long haul

I think there was a time early in my career when I thought that I might be able to help others solve their problems. I studied psychology and counseling and I worked a couple of years as a professional pastoral counselor. I thought of sage advice that might be offered and ways to inspire others to make changes in their lives.

I still believe that compassion is more than just feeling another’s pain or sorrow. It must be accompanied by a genuine desire to alleviate the suffering of another in order to be meaningful. And I seek to be a compassionate person.

I have, however, discovered that there often is little I can do to genuinely help another person. Of course there are times when gifts of food or shelter do provide much-needed relief in the face of the devastating effects of poverty. I volunteer regularly at the mission and I contribute to a variety of groups and agencies that provide direct support to needy people. I am also known to reach into my own pocket to help another when I am able.

Often, however, it is simply impossible to fix the problems that cause another’s suffering. No matter how much I want to help and no matter how much the other may need help, sometimes it is simply the case that change has to come from within. It is one of the hard lessons that family members of addicted persons have to learn. You can’t make another person change. There are problems that you can't “fix.”

What I can offer to others is companionship. I can listen very carefully and try to understand things from the other’s perspective. I can offer encouragement and support in ways that empower the other. And, often, what I am able to do is to simply share the burden and sit with another in the midst of their pain and suffering reminding that person that they are not alone.

It has been a week for listening to people walking some pretty painful journeys. The week opened with news of a death in our congregation. We invested two days in our Conference’s “Sacred Conversations on Race,” with our Lakota partners, part of which was hearing some pretty painful stories. A mid-week funeral and a few sessions with church members who needed to talk about their problems combined with the experiences of earlier in the week to remind me that there are troubles in this world that are bigger than me. I can’t fix all of the problems. I can’t stop all of the pain. I can’t protect others from suffering.

Still, I don’t have to disengage. I can remain in relationship in the midst of this messy, troubled and, yes, sometimes painful world.

And that brings me to another lesson that I have learned from my career as a pastor. I know it sounds selfish, but the truth is that I need to practice good self care in order to have the energy to be present for others. Being who I am and doing the job that I do demands that I sneak away from time to time and paddle a boat on a lake. It requires that I go for a walk and leave the troubles behind for a few moments. I need to read a good book or a good story and listen to some good music from time to time in order to have sufficient resources for the job of caring for other people.

The last thing a hurting person needs from me is my lame attempts at meeting my own needs. In order to genuinely help others, I need to be healthy myself. In order to be truly present with others, I need to have invested enough time and energy to have healthy relationships in my own home.

Last night I prepared a home-cooked meal and after dinner we went down town an strolled through an art gallery for a little while. I wasn’t thinking about the “to do” list at work. I wasn’t focused on solving problems for the committees on which I serve. I wasn’t paying much attention to the grief and sorrow of those around me. I was just looking at the art and being impressed and amazed at the skill of the artists. I was enjoying reading the short biographies of the artists that were posted near their work. I was making comments about what I like and what impressed me to others who had come to view the art. I was chatting with a few friends who also were enjoying the evening and the art.

It might have been one of the best things I could have done for those who have shared their pain with me in the past week. Rather than being shaped by the pain I have witnessed, I became aware that there is still much beauty in the world. There are still artists whose creativity can inspire. Pain and grief and sorrow and suffering are not the last words on the state of the human experience. We also are creatures of beauty and meaning and purpose.

Those are important reminders in a season of the nastiest political campaigns I can remember. Despite the intense rhetoric and downright mean words that are being exchanged, there are some really good people in this world. There are people who care about others. There are people who are called to public service. At its core, a career in politics is not about self-aggrandizement, but about serving others. You could easily forget that truth if you only paid attention to the advertisements or the reports of mainstream media. The inherent goodness of people comes forth most often when you take time to listen and look beyond the differences and disagreements.

There is a lot of burn out in my profession. I know the stories of a lot of dedicated colleagues who finally had to give up. Endurance comes from seeking balance and learning to practice self care.

Perhaps the most important skill I have learned as a pastor is to go home at the end of the day with work that remains undone.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!