We were robbed this week. Yes, I felt violated and a bit angry, angry enough to smirk when I saw the tiny smudge of blood on our doorjamb, and I realized our thief cut himself on the same glass I cut my finger on an hour later as I swept it up.
Then I thought, “God has given me an opportunity to know how our refugee neighbors feel.”
Our kids would call this thought a “Jesus juke,” and in this case they’d be right to think I jumped too quickly to a spiritual conclusion. I’m glad I didn’t say it out loud to anyone.
“Really, now,” I thought when I got less optimistic and more realistic, “How can I possible compare our experience to our Somali friend’s who were constantly in bodily danger until they moved to South Africa, where the police told them they could protect their bodies but not their stuff? How can I compare this to our Cambodian and Iraqi and Congolese friends who birthed children in the refugee camps, for whom rape and looting and famine and assault were very real and present dangers? Whose windows, if they had them at all, were not double-paned like ours. Whose doors, if kicked opened, did not like ours trigger an alarm that could scare away the most hardened criminal. Whose neighborhood police officers, if they came at all, arrived with outstretched palms itching for a bribe. Who am I to say I know anything about their suffering?”
Then I began to consider that “I know how you feel” can be an insult in certain situations.
It is not fair to be robbed, no matter who you are or where you live. But there are degrees of suffering, and I cannot help but see that our experience does not rank as much more than a minor irritation if I place it on a global grid. Once again I feel the divide between my privilege and my neighbor’s privation.
In our thirty-five years together, whenever a crime has been committed against Bill and me, there has always been an element of humor in it. Like the time he saw a homeless guy riding his stolen bike on a downtown street near our apartment. We chased the man until he coasted into a city park where about thirty homeless men and women had gathered on a sunny afternoon. Bill parked the car, left it idling on the curb with me in it, and marched straight up to the guy and said, “May I please see your bike? I think it’s mine.”
The man held the bike out toward Bill with stiff arms and said, “Here, take it. I don’t want any trouble,” implicating himself in the process, because it obviously wasn’t his bike.
Bill took one look and said, “Oops, sorry. It’s not mine.”
Lest you think Bill is naïve or valiant or a little of both… when I applauded him for his bravery he said, “That was the most docile mob I’ve ever encountered.”
Then there was the morning in Manhattan when a deranged, 300-pound man hit me in the face and knocked me down, and Andrew, who was about seven at the time, called me that night in my hotel room to ask for a description of the guy so he could “come up there and beat him down.”
And, although it’s more ironic than funny, the only thing of any value our most recent robber took was our neighbor’s car that was parked in the questionable safety of our garage. Our neighbors are at the beach this week, but when I interrupted their vacation to tell them the news they laughed. What good sports they are.
Our encounters with criminals read like “Life in These United States” vignettes in Reader’s Digest, while the crimes our Clarkston friends have endured are pure Stephen King. Which begs the question: How can I possibly “relate” without insulting them?
That’s not a very hopeful question until I consider what our friends have done for us this week. A few said, “I know how you feel,” because they actually do… and this was helpful. But most just said, “Oh, I’m so sorry, that stinks.” And, surprisingly, this was even more helpful.
They did not offer us sympathy. Instead they gave us compassion—or co-passion—which means feeling with, not feeling for. Sympathy and compassion are not the same thing, nor do they look the same.
Compassion looks like my eighteen-year-old brother’s inability to speak when he called me to tell me he was sorry about my miscarriage. His sobs brought more comfort than any “I know how you feel” could bring in that moment. Compassion looks like my friend blurting out that she wanted to “scratch the eyes out” of the mean man who hurt us in a sour church experience. She wouldn’t really, and I wasn’t anywhere near that mad, but her love for me prompted her to feel for me that passionately.
Once, in college, when I was foolishly heart-sore over a boy, the Lord took me to Isaiah 54 where God claims to have compassion on three kinds of women, women who represent his people: the widow, the infertile wife, and the young bride who has been “rejected in her youth.” Three times God declares his compassion for these women:
“With great compassion I will gather you.” (Verse 7)
“With everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” (Verse 8)
“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you. (Verse 10)
Notice God does not say here that he knows how these women feel. He only claims to feel with them. This gives me a hopeful template. Compassion doesn’t require past experience, only present engagement.
Sympathy isn’t all that difficult because it is connected to something I already feel for myself. True compassion, on the other hand, not only takes effort, it takes time. I can’t feel with people on the run. I must sit with them. I must listen to them. And I must pray for them with my emotions untethered from myself enough to enter into something I know nothing about. It seems to me compassion is the emotional equivalent of incarnation.
Unlike the women referenced in Isaiah 54, I have never been a widow, I had no trouble getting pregnant, and my husband has never left me, but I do know pain. Maybe my pain is a hangnail compared to someone else’s, but it is my pain. And I know that God promises to feel it with me.
Better yet, his compassion offers me a way out of my pain when the time is right. Sometimes this takes a long time, and sometimes it is almost immediate. When I hurt, I am no good at determining the validity of what caused that hurt. In other words, self-pity does not typically recognize itself. Compassion, unlike sympathy, does not validate my experience; it validates me, and in doing so it frees me to be honest and even somewhat ruthless with myself as I navigate my way out of pain.
Sure, this week I was a victim. I do not feel quite as safe as I did last week. We spent money we had not planned to spend on windows and new locks and garage door openers, which is just plain irritating.
And I know God—it is in his very nature—feels this with me. His compassion is a valuable no thief can steal. It’s humbling, really, to consider that the same compassion God lavishes on my refugee friends, he lavishes on me. Perhaps this is an inverted way of saying that there is nothing either of us can experience that his compassion cannot reach.
And in this my neighbors and I are exactly the same. We are never outside the reach of God’s boundless compassion.