Sunday, January 17, 2010

Staying in the Heart of Compassion

I'm way behind on blog posts. A recent event has consumed my thoughts for weeks. This post has been on my mind every day and I'm still not sure I can adequately say what I want to say.

On December 23, a friend and co-worker, Susan Wood, was killed by a hit-and-run driver. She was crossing the street on her walk from the parking lot to the office. The driver apparently went on to park his car at a friend's apartment complex, then went to another location and called the police, claiming to have been the victim of a carjacking. I have to add here that he has not been tried and found guilty, though the events are fairly clear. Police reports do indicate that he was intoxicated.

My first reaction, after the initial shock and sadness, was anger. That's no surprise. The driver's actions took the life of a beautiful, loving woman, one whose life had been a positive force at work and in the lives of her husband, her two young children, and all the family and friends who loved her. I'm still angry.

But then the recognition of the broader scope of the tragedy became apparent to me. The young man who is charged with her death is only 24 years old. He has a mother, a father, friends, possibly siblings, maybe a girlfriend. Susan's family and friends were not the only ones suffering, grieving, reeling from the events of that morning. I thought about how I would feel if it were my child who had killed this woman.

As days went on, I thought a lot about staying in the heart of compassion...about not letting the anger and grief consume me...about not letting it prevent me from honoring the memory of a friend whose life was about love for her God, her family, her friends.

I thought, too, about justice. What, exactly, is that? How is there any justice possible when a life is taken? Nothing can bring her back. She cannot be replaced. You cannot minimize the grief of her family by taking the life of another, not even the one responsible for her death. The only result of taking his life would be more grief, more pain. His family, like Susan's family, is innocent. Is there any good to be gained for her family by causing his family to suffer, too? I'm still trying to figure out what justice is in a case like this.

Compassion is, in my opinion, poorly defined in the dictionary: "A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering." ( I do not believe that the pain the young man in this incident is feeling should be alleviated. He is accountable for his actions and accountability involves dealing with consequences, and the biggest consequence of this tragedy for him, even bigger than potential jail time, is living with the knowledge that his choices and actions took a human life and caused untold suffering. We should not seek to remove that accountability nor the legal consequences from him, nor to prevent his being jailed or otherwise kept from hurting someone again by his actions. But that doesn't mean that we can't try to understand the depth of his pain, his family's pain, and feel compassion.

Perhaps "sympathy" or "empathy" are better words...but I don't think so. The word "compassion" speaks to me of common passion, of common experience, of the knowledge that there but for grace go I. Maybe we need to redefine compassion in this sense as the acknowledgement that another human being is suffering...that even though that suffering was self-incurred, it is still human suffering...that any one of us could find ourselves in the same position at any time.

We all make bad choices. Have you ever driven impaired? Tired? Distracted? Kids arguing in the back making you nuts? Ever run over a curb because you were looking elsewhere? Ever run a light or a stop sign by accident? I have. And in doing so, I could have hit someone and killed them, and then it would be me living with that for the rest of my life, and my family suffering.

I do not want this young man to be "let off the hook" for his actions. He is responsible. He is accountable. But I'm able to feel compassion for his suffering, for his family's suffering. I'm heartbroken at the loss of a friend, more heartbroken at the pain I see on her husband's face, the knowledge that her children whom she loved so much and was so proud of are without their mother. And I'm grateful to All that I am able to remain in the heart of compassion...that I am not poisoned by the anger.

The young man involved will be held accountable for his actions and I would not remove that accountability if I could. But I will not let my heart of compassion be destroyed by his actions. For the life of me, I cannot help but believe that my friend Susan would agree.


  1. I love you for putting into words what I cannot over this tragedy. I drove off the side of the road last summer trying to get an ant off of my husbands leg. What if there had been someone walking down the street? I yanked the wheel so hard we ended up going into the other side of traffic, what if a car had been there? This young man made bad choices in the past and had been given punishment for those actions and still, he continued down the wrong path. If I were his parents, siblings...wouldn't I want to ease his suffering? But I'm not. I don't want to ease his suffering. I just hope he is able to live with what he has done and hopefully, learn from it. I keep telling friends and co-workers that SOME good will come of this. Susan was too amazing for it NOT to. How many people do you know who would have a 3 hour waiting line that stretched around a building and down the highway just to see their closed casket? Her life is a testimony already. Her children will carry on her legacy and her husband and her friends will carry on her memory. I love you for being able to say what I feel, but never can seem to find the words to say. Compassion as defined by the dictionary above, doesn't fit at all, but in your description, that's exactly how I feel. Susan would have loved this post sweetheart. And she would have agreed with you 100%.

  2. Anonymous10:04 AM

    I posted a comment on FB already, but this has been on my mind since. Your post made me think about a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being lovable."

    Having a heart of compassion is a difficult thing; for me, the most difficult I've ever attempted. It's so difficult because it requires us to see EVERYONE with compassion; not just friends, or relatives, or people we like and agree with. I struggle with this mightily. It's easy to have compassion for your freinds; it's more difficult to have compassion for someone who takes a life out of stupidity as in this case, or causes pain to garner popularity or political gain (Rush and P. Robertson- comments on the tragedy in Haiti).
    While I agree that having a heart of compassion is a goal I stive for, I can't always get there. ~Zephyr

  3. Someone once asked me what I thought of the death penalty. I answered, 'it depends'. If my child were the victim, I would be in favor. If my child were the one who was guilty, I would want mercy.

    I keep saying I want to become a more compassionate person, yet I reserve that compassion for those who treat me well (as Zephyr pointed out). I've not yet learned how to extend it to those who do not. Until I can do that, my prayer is to be able to control retaliation or harsh words.

    I console my conscience by telling myself as long as I'm moving in that direction, as long as I have a desire to be a gentler person, it's ok. When I cease to 'want' to be more compassionate, I become as those I once condemned.


Sing with me...