Multiple Choice Question: Your friend comes up to you in the hall and says, “I’m so bummed. I didn’t make the team/get a part in the play/get into My Favorite University.” You reply,
A. “Hey, when does that new Superman movie come out? We should go see it.” (Changing the subject means you won’t have to talk about your friend’s disappointment.)
B. “Okay, this is how we are going to fix this problem. You are going to practice more/audition next year/egg the admission director’s house…” (If someone is sad, the best thing to do is to find a way to fix the problem that made them sad in the first place.)
C. This would never happen. You and your friends do not really talk about this kind of stuff. (And by this kind of stuff you mean feelings.)
D. “I am so sorry” and give the friend a hug.
If I am being honest with myself, A is my go to response when someone in my life is sad, depressed, grieving, or blue. If I know someone is unhappy, I might decide to ignore a text or pretend that I did not get a voicemail. I might avoid them for a few days until the worst of the unhappiness passes. If I somehow find myself in the same room with this gloomy person, I may let them say their piece before quickly changing the subject to something light and airy, like the weather or celebrity gossip. Why do I avoid misery like the plague? First, because I never know what to say or how to respond, and second, because it makes me sad, too, and I really do not want to be brought down by others’ dejection. Life is hard enough.
I have also enacted my fair share of answer B in the face of sorrow, always with the best of intentions. When you see someone you care about feeling woeful, a natural response is to want to make it better right now, using the awesome ideas that only you can come up with. But I have to say that when I have been on the receiving end of B, I usually get annoyed. Most of the awesome ideas my friends and family come up with are ideas I already have or would have come up with on my own in time. When I am really despondent, I need a minute (or a week or a few months) just to be sad before moving on to the work of making things better. Really, what I need is D, someone to show some compassion and give me a hug.
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus demonstrates what answer D looks like in the face of great sorrow. He has entered the city of Nain and encounters a crowd carrying out a man who has died, the only son of a woman who has also been widowed. We are told, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ ” Then Jesus raises her son from the dead. I find it crucial that before Jesus works to fix the woman’s problem, he has compassion for her. In its Latin origin, compassion means “co-suffering.” Jesus first meets the woman in her grief, and only then does he work on finding a way to alleviate her suffering.
So if we are to follow Jesus’ example, the correct answer to our multiple choice question would be to start with D, with a healthy dose of compassion. After we have acknowledged the person’s unhappiness, after we have felt it with them, then and only then is it time to move on to working with them to help them come out of their suffering.
And what about answer C? The woman in this story does not hide her grief. We know that she is part of a public funeral procession and that she must be crying since Jesus tells her not to weep. Had she kept her misery inside, Jesus may simply have stood aside to let the funeral procession pass and then entered Nain to get on with his business. From this widow we glimpse another important truth about compassion: if hide our pain, then others will not know to meet us with compassion. Part of being human is taking the risk of showing our vulnerability to others, so that the important others in our lives can be with us in our pain and sorrow.
When people in your life are sad, how do you normally respond?
When you are sad, do you like to keep it to yourself or do you try to share it with others? When you are sad, how do you like to be treated by others?
When have you been able to meet another person’s sorrow with compassion?