1 June

The Compassionate Life: Making America Kind Again

by Jon Katz

I got an especially ugly and specific death threat this morning and then watched videos of people protesting and some other people burning and stealing things.

Then I saw our President say that all of this looting and rage was the fault of unnamed radical left organizations and weak Democratic mayors, and my heart did sink a bit.

I don’t have it in me to hold anybody in judgment right now, the air is heavy with it.

There are times when hope and faith are drained, and there is nothing left but rage and hopelessness. Times when the fire just has to burn itself out.

I’ll leave the experience or judging to others; there is never any shortage of judges among the humans.

Mary Shelley warned us. Don’t create what you can’t control.

But then, after a few minutes of feeling unsettled, I had a better idea than being angry.

I went to my bookshelf.

I found a slender green volume called A Spirituality Of Caregiving, by Henri Nouwen, and read the chapter called The Call: Compassion And Caregiving, and like magic, I started to feel some joy again.

In the book, Nouwen wrote about how Christ commanded his followers to be compassionate, “just as your father is compassionate.” In our world, I see an awful lot of Christians who quote Jesus all the time but don’t seem compassionate to me.

He called it the Call To Compassion or the Compassionate Life.

I believe one of the greatest gifts I have received in life was my sudden ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer – especially the extremely elderly and the battered but not broken refugees.

I sometimes could do it as a reporter, but over time, reporters, like cops, grow hard and cold shells to protect themselves from what they see. Joy fades. That’s one reason I went to book writing. I could do that alone.

When I look at my own curious life and times of my greatest suffering, I found the most comfort came from people who told me they could not take my pain away or solve my problems but instead promised me that they would not leave me alone or abandon me but stay with me as long as I needed them and as they could.

When there is a real trouble, I learned, most people run away.

These past few years – this year especially – call me to the Compassionate Life. It is not noble; it is quite selfish. It is where I go to find joy. And respite.

There is a lot of grief, pain, and disappointment in all of our lives, but what a remarkable thing it is when we don’t have to live our misery and suffering alone.

That is the real gift of compassion.

Compassion is among the most difficult of emotions because it requires us to the place where others are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken.

This was not my first or most spontaneous response to suffering. What I wanted most was to do away with pain and suffering by running away from it or finding a quick, even superficial cure.

But most genuine joy came to me when I discovered my ability – unknown to me for almost all of my life – to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.

To do this, I had to contend with judgment, mine, and fear.

Compassion is incompatible with judgment and cannot exist alongside it. Judgment creates distance and distinction – just look at our country today – which some often prevents us from being with anyone who is suffering.

Matthew called him “Jesus the compassionate, and wrote: “He is compassion in the flesh. He pities the pitiful and the helpless and the hurting.” Where has this message – which electrified the world centuries ago – gone?

And why have so many Christians abandoned the idea, and almost literally turned to the dark side?

I am not a Christian or a believer in Jesus, the son of God, but I have learned from him. I learned about compassion first by getting to know the extreme and largely forgotten people in extreme elder care.

I learned this again by getting close to refugee families; people often reduced to ruin and helplessness by the savagery of human beings. Their suffering is overpowering, they never lose their capacity for joy.

At first, I didn’t think I could do it. It was too painful, too real, too close.

But then, I found I could connect with these people just by showing up, by caring. I could ease their burdens, reduce their pain, soften their terror. All I had to do was to be me and be there.

When this happened, I felt a great joy, unlike any other joy I had felt, except when I first saw my daughter open her eyes after birth, or at my wedding to Maria.

It was genuinely true, compassion brings joy, anger, and judgment and fear kill joy. I saw that happening on the news this morning.

Wrath and judgment sunk out all the color and the light, and bring the darkness and the hurt. I had to hold Henri Nouwen’s hand to get back.

I’ve never known a caregiver, as hard as that is to be, who did not speak of feeling joy when they were able to help.

I am very grateful to be able to say that of myself.

These are cold and hard days. I choose the Compassionate Life


    1. thank you, it’s not my time..this stuff happens more often than you might think, the people who want to kill you don’t tell you in advance..

  1. Today Barack Obama wrote a lengthy piece posted on Facebook. It lifted myheavy heart and gave me hope. I hope you can find a d read it. A true leader, a voice of reason and calm. De as r lord I miss that man.

  2. Thank you for reaching down into your wellspring of compassion and sharing that vision with us. Stay safe, stay well. $$ is on the way for the refugees. (I love the light in that photo!)

  3. “Compassion is incompatible with judgment and cannot exist alongside it.”…..those are powerful words, Jon.
    that really speaks to me. Well done.

  4. Thank you Jon- your words are so powerful, ( THOUGH SIMPLE) genuine and reflective- Your words help me so much to move in a better direction – please do not stop. I too love and respect Henri Nouwen- he left us way too soon – but his words and thoughts will live on. Know of my deep gratitude for you and your writing. P.S. I share your material on a daily basis with many others.

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