I’ve been vaguely obsessed with a joke for most of my life. It goes like this:
A terrible storm descents on a country town. Eventually the streets are flooded, and the water is rising fast. The town preacher is standing on the steps of the church, praying for deliverance, when a guy in a row boat comes by. “Better get in the boat, preacher! The water is rising fast!”
The preacher waves him away. “No. I have faith in the Lord. He will protect me.” And so the guy rows away.
The water keeps rising, and the preacher has to retreat to the bell tower. At this point, another guy comes by in a speed boat. “Get in, preacher! The dam is going to break, and we’ll all be washed away!”
Again, the preacher waves him away. “No. I have faith in the Lord. He will protect me.” And so the guy guns the engine and zooms away.
The flood waters keep rising, and the preacher is forced to climb to the very top of the steeple. About that time, a police helicopter flies overhead. The cops drop a ladder to the preacher and shout at him: “Grab the ladder, preacher! The dam has broken, and the water is coming this way fast!”
The preacher waves the chopper away. “No. I have faith in the Lord. He will protect me.”
Not long after the helicopter flies away, a huge wave of water comes rushing in, and the preacher drowns. He goes to heaven, and he is taken to see God. “My Lord! I had faith! I prayed to you! Why didn’t you save me?!”
And God says, “WHAT DID YOU WANT FROM ME? I SENT YOU TWO BOATS AND A HELICOPTER.”
Compassion begins with the awareness that we suffer and the other people suffer, but that’s not nearly the end of the story. Of course it matters that we recognize this. If we can’t, we may feel isolated and alone, or we may feel pity, contempt, or even anger. Once we connect with the awareness of our suffering and the suffering of others, we have some jobs to do. The good news is that the steps are pretty straightforward.
First: Consider that there is something we can do to address our suffering and the suffering of others.
This isn’t necessarily easy, especially if we’ve been hurting for a long time and feel overwhelmed by the scale of the pain we feel and witness. It can be very, very hard sometimes to remember that, whatever our situations, there is always something we can do to be kinder and more compassionate to ourselves and others.
Second: We then have the chance to look inside ourselves and decide if we are willing to do what it takes to address our suffering and the suffering of others.
Again, it may not be easy, but this is not a low-stakes game. This is your one-and-only life we’re talking about. You’re stronger than you imagine you are, and your willingness and intention to take even tiny steps toward addressing your suffering and the suffering of others matters—a lot.
Third: Once you can recognize the fact of suffering and feel willing to do something about it, the real work of compassion comes in moving your hands and feet.
Do something about it. The smallest, subtlest thing matters, Little things build quickly.
Will we put an end to suffering? No. And we probably wouldn’t want to if we could. The rose’s perfume is as much the result of its thorns as anything else. The love we feel for our lovers and our children is all the stronger because of the realization that our time with them is not without limit. Our suffering and the suffering of others is an invitation for us to fully be who we are: kinder, more caring, and more sensitive instruments for living.
If you have trouble with any of these steps, remember that help is always available. Psychotherapy is one way, but the love and connection of friends, family, and teachers—both those living and those who speak to us through the pages of books—are other ways we can learn to connect with these amazing and beautiful parts of yourself.
When you’re ready to take this step, give us a call.