In my first job out of seminary, I spent my summers sitting with a group of college interns, helping them to sort out their experiences serving their city’s most vulnerable citizens.
Most of these young men and women had grown up worlds away from their neighbors who experienced homelessness, joblessness and food insecurity, but in this particular summer they were up close and personal to the suffering.
As part of their program, we read books together; great books; books about compassion and faith and suffering and hope. One of those books was Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and the founder/executive director of Homeboy Ministries, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles. It’s this book that I have been thinking about a lot lately.
In an essay on compassion, Boyle writes “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
These days, it isn’t just the poor that we need to have compassion on, though that is always the case; it is each other. Our leaders, our neighbors, our families; our very selves.
We are in uncharted territory in this pandemic, trying to figure out how to do work and school and ministry and all of life without the physical communities we have grown used to, without the ability to venture out normally, without our usual safety nets.
If you look closely, my guess is that you will be hard-pressed to find an area of your life that hasn’t been impacted, even if only for the short-term, by COVID-19.
One of the many negative effects of the stress and change is this: I am witnessing far more criticism in our society – on the radio, the television, on my news feed. I read about people ridiculing each other for going to get takeout, or wearing a mask to the grocery store. I see rants posted on my Facebook feed about new restricted store hours or limits on items. I hear people venting their frustration on each other…and I keep coming back to Boyle’s words.
What we seek is a compassion that stands in awe at what we all carry.
In awe, at the person who lives alone and has to deal with this strange, worrisome time on their own.
In awe, at the nurse who cannot stay home, but dons the same N95 mask every day to care for patients, praying she doesn’t bring the virus home to her family.
In awe, at the grocery store workers and mail carriers who keep showing up every day.
In awe, at the teachers who have learned an entirely different way of instruction and are burning the midnight oil to revise their lessons and make sure their students don’t miss a beat.
In awe, at how we, ourselves, are managing not to lose our hope or our sanity every day.
After all, as a friend reminded me: this is your first pandemic. You’re doing great.
Here is your invitation: on top of all the other things you may be feeling right now, don’t add judgment to the list. Seek, instead, compassion.
Aim to stand in awe of what everyone around you is carrying. Marvel at the losses they have sustained and the way they keep on going, at the disappointments and the worries they are holding, and still getting up every morning.
And extend that grace, dear one, to yourself.