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The dictionary definition of compassion is “concern for the misfortunes of others.” Synonyms include empathy, mercy, and charity. However, to truly observe compassion in action, I need not look further than my own community.
Recent natural disasters and national tragedies have proven the power of the human spirit, and the strength and resilience cultivated through solidarity and shared experience.
Powerful stories of neighbors helping neighbors have been born from devastating events such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, as well as wildfires across the United States. Other inspiring accounts have been shared about strangers helping strangers during chaotic and confusing scenes such as during the shooting tragedy in Las Vegas.
Why Is Compassion Important?
I believe the significance of this outpouring of compassion can’t be overlooked. However, it’s equally important to remember that compassion is an everyday quality we can and should display at every chance possible.
Abdu’l-Baha counsels us:
“the loved ones of God… must endeavor to consort in a friendly spirit with everyone, must have respect and consideration one for another, and show loving-kindness and tender regard to all the peoples of the world.” 1
In another passage, He also says:
“Be thou loving to every afflicted one, a dispeller of sorrows to every grieved one, a consolation to dejected hearts, a blessing to unfortunate souls.” 2
How Can We Show Daily Compassion?
Compassion is a natural tendency for humans, but in the general culture of the United States, sometimes insecurity and uncertainty as to how kindness will be received keeps people from fully demonstrating this mutual love and respect. Thankfully, displaying affection and regard for others is easy! Here are a few ideas I’ve been reflecting on:
- Random Acts of Kindness: Small gestures go a long way to brightening the days of others. You could offer to run an errand for a sick neighbor, or give a ride to someone who has no other means of personal transportation. Sometimes people just need an ear. When you begin to look, the opportunities for demonstrating selfless compassion are virtually endless!
- Giving is Receiving: The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” While kindness should be its own reward, studies have found that those who show compassion are happier in their own lives.
- Seeing the Total Picture: Everyone has their own opinions and values. However, we all share the same goals — including providing a safe and productive environment for our friends and families, to love and be loved, and other desires. Simply stated, our similarities are greater than our differences.
- Forgiveness: To that end, I think it’s important to realize that we all make mistakes and sometimes react to things in ways we later regret. Remember the famous line from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism: “To err is human — to forgive, divine.”
What are Some Benefits of Showing Compassion?
While compassion and goodwill should be ingrained qualities demonstrated selflessly, there are some real, research-backed benefits of living a life filled with positivity and mutual respect, such as:
- reduced stress
- reduced risk of heart disease
- increased productivity at work and hobbies
- feelings of inclusion and belonging
- overall improved happiness
Beyond worldly benefits, compassion purifies our spirits and brings us closer to God.
In Vignettes from the Life of Abdu’l-Baha, you’ll find a story about a Turkish man living in Haifa who lost his job — leaving his wife and children with no means of supporting themselves. Abdu’l-Baha provided the family with financial assistance.
Later, when that same man fell ill, his children again sought assistance from the Master, who provided a doctor, medicine, and provisions. Sadly, the man later died. Prior to his passing, however, he had told his children to turn to Abdu’l-Baha. “He is your father, who will take care of you when I am gone,” said the man.
Abdu’l-Baha made funeral arrangements for the man, and provided food, clothing, and travel tickets for the family to return to Turkey.
When people are in need of comfort and supplies, and we are able to provide that assistance, the very act of compassion and charity enriches our own lives.
The Baha’i Writings also counsel us on the transformative capacity of compassion. Baha’u’llah wrote:
“If the learned and worldly-wise were to inhale the fragrance of fellowship and love, every understanding heart would apprehend the meaning of true liberty, and discover the secret of undisturbed peace and absolute composure.” 3
Examples of Compassion from the Central Figures
Baha’u’llah’s loving-kindness is well known to many. One story tells of a time when He demonstrated compassion to an elderly woman in Baghdad.
This woman loved Baha’u’llah, and looked forward to seeing Him walking past her dilapidated house every day. He would always bend down low, so the frail woman could kiss His cheek.
“She knows that I love her,” Baha’u’llah said. “That is why she loves Me.” When Baha’u’llah left Baghdad, He arranged to have money sent to this woman for the rest of her life, so she would always have food and warm clothes. 4
Another story recounted by Hand of the Cause of God Corrine True tells of a time when a cleaning woman wished to meet Abdu’l-Baha, but was embarrassed by her appearance — especially her hands, which were cracked and calloused from years of hard work.
This woman devised a plan that she would just quickly touch Abdu’l-Baha’s robe, and then leave before He could see her hands. However, when she touched His robe, Abdu’l-Baha held her hand, carefully examined it, gazed into her eyes, and simply said: “Sacrifice!”
The woman smiled as she left — pleased at having met the Master, and no longer concerned about her appearance. 5
I love those stories, and how they make me reflect on the importance of compassion. Compassion and kindness are virtues that Baha’is can actively strive to display daily. As Abdu’l-Baha counsels us:
“Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone. Let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path.” 6
Abdu’l-Baha also offers this guidance:
“Ignite a candle of love in every meeting, and with tenderness rejoice and cheer every heart.” 6
Kindness and good will go beyond seasons, beyond tragedies. Selfless benevolence is a quality that can be exercised every day, and at every opportunity. While we all share different interests, different cultural traditions, and our own unique principles and convictions, at the very core we’re all in this together.
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