Recovering, as I hope I am, from one of the many winter illnesses currently around us, I watched the evening news tonight. In the midst of all the important often startling news from near and far, two stories particularly caught my attention. They did so at least in part because of their similarity.
One of them spoke of a public meeting to take place tonight in New York City. The city intends to make a homeless shelter for about 150 men in a hotel in Manhattan. Those who live and work nearby, according to the news report, have many cincerns about this. There are families nearby. There are restaurants nearby. There are businesses nearby. In a word, there is prosperity nearby.
The second story spoke about the intention of a group that provides therapy for women suffering with eating disorders to establish a residential therapeutic center in a town on Long Island. The building they propose to use is a beautiful brick mansion. Again, people nearby, the neighbors, expressed grave reservations about the up to 14 women who might be in residence and in therapy at any given time. There would be in addition of 10 parking spaces, they noted. Traffic would increase, they noted. One gentleman whose house is for sale just across the street recounted that a possible buyer backed out because she had a sense that the people there would be a source of “danger.” A sweet and gentle-looking older woman spoke in terms indicating that the wonderful ‘way of life’ in the town would likely be no more after the advent of this center.
I could be very wrong, but as I hear these voices, it seems that our shared, very deep and persistent fear of suffering – other people’s suffering – can prevent us from feeling compassion.
That word, compassion, in its etymology, means ‘to suffer with.’ But we seem to be becoming a people who will do anything possible to avoid suffering, and even to avoid seeing the suffering of others. At more than arm’s length, we do all we can to make sure we will not ‘suffer with.’
And yet, we know in our heart of hearts that there ultimately is no avoidance of suffering, even personal suffering for each of us. What we perhaps do not know, by lack of experience, is that entering into the suffering of others is a wide doorway into the experience of being human. Of being human together. Of knowing experientially that we all belong to one another. And of the inestimable richness of that knowing.
Even if all the concerns raised by the persons nearby both of these proposed developments, one in a super-urban area and the other in a suburban area, were to be judged reasonable and even true, there would remain an unasked question of great importance:
Do the suffering ones among us remain human? Do they have a call upon our humanity? Does their being near not invite us to the courage to draw near to their hurt, to embrace them in their pain, and by doing so to discover all that we share in common?
I write as one who, in often halting and failing fashion, attempts to live in the light of the Gospel of Christ. As one who halts and fails, I know where the neighbors of these two developments stand. But standing near them, and looking across at the 150 homeless and the 14 bearing the pain of eating-related travails, I also see clearly to what that gospel calls us.
There will be no leaving this world without suffering for any of us. To open ourselves now to enter into the suffering of others is the teacher of the possibility and richness of our own future. To focus more narrowly and to do anything less, is (I hope largely unconsciously) to refuse the call of the Gospel.
We are free to choose to be the presence of Christ in this world or to choose not. But if I choose not, I pray at least that I might know exactly what I am doing.
Context is important. And in this 21st-century world context is broader than ever. We have to will to refuse to see that. When we look upon a homeless shelter or a therapy center as places of disorder, these must be placed side-by-side with a photograph or video of any of the Syrian cities destroyed over the last seven years of war, to give but one example. In that context, by comparison, we know no disorder at all. But what we are presented, is a God-given invitation to be true neighbors.