Ann Austin: What place should compassion take in life?

Published 9:00 am Sunday, July 10, 2016

Live United by Ann Austin

Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.

I was at a meeting recently when the topic of compassion came up. What place does compassion have in our lives? How have we come to define it? Is it considered a sign of weakness or of strength?

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Emotions are a very subjective thing — some people consider anger to be a sign of strength or authority.

Others view the expression of sadness as a sign of weakness. Both are an effective outlet for emotions, if we do not let them consume us or hurt the people around us.

Ann Austin

Ann Austin

Compassion is another level of emotion that is hard to define in experience. Merriam Webster defines compassion as: a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc. But it is more than this—there is often guilt, fear, sadness, anger, and many other emotions wrapped up in an experience of compassion. There is so much pain in our world, and at times we feel powerless to address it. At times, we turn our backs if the pain is too great to handle.

Compassion creates a tension we must experience because it calls us to take action. It tugs at our hearts and helps us recognize what it is to be human, living in the world we do now.

Compassion leads us to try to understand people — people who are struggling with poverty, addiction, loneliness; and strive to understand why conditions exist that cause harm — why people hurt other people.

It hurts to feel things so deeply — it is easier to allow ourselves to become distracted or place blame and wash our hands of a situation.

But if we remove ourselves from the reality of the world we live in, then what kind of future are we creating for our children?

We must face the pain and join together in our understanding — we have more in common than we know. We all want a world where our children are safe, where we have clean air and healthy food and where we experience freedom.

Allowing ourselves to express our emotions in a healthy way is the first step — then we must open our hearts to experience compassion for others. When we are able to reach a point where our own fear and anger and self-preservation is no longer driving decisions and actions, we can step forward in willingness to be part of creating a better world.

So what do we do when we are overwhelmed with compassion? We do what we can. We cannot solve every problem or help every person who has been hurt. But each of us, in our own way, can do what we can.