Compassion: I Suffer With You

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Earlier this week I awoke to the news that an infant was born in an area hospital to a 31-year old Honduran woman infected with the Zika virus. The mother was visiting the United States at the time of her daughter’s birth, and the child was born with microcephaly, a severe fetal brain defect caused by the Zika virus. According to a report on abcnews.go.com “The infant is only the second baby suspected of being born in the U.S. with the Zika virus-related birth defect, characterized by an abnormally small head and brain. Another baby was born with the condition in Hawaii earlier this year.”

How frightened that new mother must be. On the most fundamental level, the depth of her sorrow, and worry about her adequacy as a mother, and the sheer injustice of chance is more than I can comprehend. Through no fault of her own, she was bitten by a virus-carrying mosquito during her pregnancy. Because of this, her baby girl, like the thousands of other similarly afflicted infants born around the globe, and those yet to be born before this virus is eradicated, will never experience the fullness of their life’s flourishing.

The story of the Zika birth on U.S. soil flooded social media outlets. Armchair judges shared the news wildly, many adding their condemnation of the new mother and child for the entire world to see. I was not aware that so many people manage to remain alive with hearts made of stone.

“So now the American tax-payers have a new citizen requiring expensive, life-long care”

“This is total bullsh*t. She should have been put on a plane and sent right back to Honduras. You can bet she has no means to pay for this health care, so we the taxpayers will foot the bill.”

“It really sucks, I’m sure, to think that your pregnancy is effected by Zika, but it also sucks that someone comes to this country to give birth and milk hundreds of thousands of dollars in Healthcare services for your delivery and child when those who have been a taxpayer and a citizen isn’t getting that health care and being treated as a drain on the nation we’ve paid taxes to. Now this kid is a US citizen and can get a free ride on medical care, food, etc. We have got to change our laws, because people who are actual citizens are getting shafted.”

“So if you have a heathy heard of cattle would you bring in a cow knowing it had hoof and mouth disease? As simple as that. Wonder how much it will cost? They knew she had it!”

For some people, the value of life is “as simple as that.” The scale that weighs human worth is calibrated with the amount of taxes one pays into the system. Clearly, some people in our society think it is fine to abandon women and children who cannot support themselves. It is no exaggeration to observe how little we have progressed from the biblical culture in which it was acceptable for women who lacked male support to become destitute.

Am I judgmental? I admit I am. This whole way of thinking is excruciatingly painful to me. Still, I continue to hope in the inherent goodness of humankind.

I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that callous responses to the suffering of others are a learned behavior birthed from deep insecurities and the fear of losing one’s identity. I feel sorry for people who feel threatened or displaced by the needs of others and who find justification in their meanness and lack of kindness.

Still, we are all works in progress—myself included—and I believe hardened hearts can be softened, walls can be taken down, and layers of fear can be peeled away. It begins with the practice of suffering with one another: compassion.

Compassionate acts have the power to energize those whose lives are waning. Through our care and concern, God’s love for us is made known.

How often do we feel compelled to do unsolicited acts of kindness, empathy, and seek companionship, and friendship? Something as simple as a smile or a door held open for one who is suffering, and the seemingly random but thoughtful acts when one individual takes a moment to recognize another’s distress are examples of how God’s presence is revealed in human action.

Sometimes we are the dead who need resuscitating.

Luke’s Gospel story of the widow of Nain [Luke 7:11-17] provides us with a profound example of the life-giving power of compassion.

As Jesus, his disciples and the large crowd following him neared the entrance to the city of Nain they passed a widow accompanying the body of her only son to his burial place outside the city walls.

In biblical times, a woman’s identity and survival depended on male support. With the death of her son, the widow of Nain’s life also ended; the funeral procession was her own. She had no place to call home, no financial support, no identity; she was no longer a contributing member of society.

Jesus was moved with pity by the sight. The painful loss of the woman’s beloved son, his companionship, his care and his love for her ceased, and the future she faced as a childless widow moved Jesus to save her life by restoring the life of her son.

The challenge of compassionate living is not the same as the clichéd “what would Jesus do?” although WWJD has led people to make more life-giving and peaceable choices in difficult situations.

Compassion is about allowing God’s presence to work in us, with us and through us. Another person’s compassion or tenderness towards us has the power to restore us to a more abundant life.

Our concern and empathy for the plight of another, like the Zika-stricken Honduran woman and her microcephalic infant daughter, has the power to transform her life and ours from one state of being to another, from future without hope to one that offers the promise of abundant life.

Compassion is about taking on the cloak of the Prophet, dying to our own needs and fears, and joining them to one another’s.

That’s the miracle of restoring life to one whose life is all but lost.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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