What I Learned about Compassion
March 1980

“What I Learned about Compassion,” Ensign, Mar. 1980, 26

What I Learned about Compassion

We were not close friends—as branch choir director, I knew them only casually. But these two bright and lovely young women were my most loyal and talented supporters. We shared a love of music and the gospel. That seemed to be enough.

But when a painful illness struck me, they came. In the evenings, on weekends, in the midst of demanding graduate studies and heavy teaching responsibilities, they appeared whenever my need seemed most severe. They came with food, with lively conversation, with warm hands and gentle hearts, with an abundance of loving devotion and concern such as I had rarely before experienced.

After several months we had formed lasting bonds of friendship, and I had come to understand the meaning and nature of compassion.

In the Church we often speak of compassionate service. The term usually brings to mind the gracious service daily performed by Relief Society sisters. But compassion as a quality of character is a many-facet-ed prism, catching light from many sources and radiating understanding, hope, sympathy, and kindness. It is the generous and unselfish offering of our time, means, energy, and loving concern to bring comfort to those in need.

Jesus Christ is the supreme example of the truly compassionate personality. He blessed the little ones, healed the sick, comforted the mourners, raised the dead, cleansed repentant sinners, wept for unbelievers. He even forgave his crucifiers, and in one final act of unequaled compassion he willingly offered his perfect life to atone for the sins of mankind. Our sins. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends. …” (John 15:13–14.)

Not only is Jesus the perfect example of compassionate living, but also he is our greatest help as we struggle to deal compassionately with our fellowmen. Elder Marion D. Hanks explains how:

“Christ will lift us up and help us to become as he is, as we do as he did; as we love our Father and give him our lives; as we love each other and all men, and learn to live and teach his word; believe in the worth of souls and let our lives be the warrant of our earnestness; mourn with those who mourn, and bring hope to them; understand and comfort those who weep; cry unto the Lord.”

Most of us are idealistic enough to envision ourselves generously extending a helping hand to someone, somewhere, sometime. But it is one thing to say, “Yes, I will be compassionate,” and quite another to willingly commit oneself to a specific act of compassion.

Too often we rush headlong into a contemplated “good deed”—only to discover somewhere along the way that it’s going to take a good deal more time, energy, and resources than we had originally intended. So we withdraw, leaving behind us skeletons of broken promises, unfulfilled expectations, shallow excuses, and wounded feelings where once had been visions of hope, comfort, and encouragement. How much better to have kept the faith, honored the commitment, given graciously to the end!

Sustained compassion isn’t easy to achieve, but the devotions of choice friends who cared for me daily through long months of illness have convinced me that not only is it possible, but also it is the Lord’s desire, that we learn obedience and sacrifice through serving others.

The victims of long-term illness and those who have lost a loved one often must reach out to others for material or emotional support over a period of weeks, months, or even years. The person who commits himself to provide that support should be serving as devotedly at the end of the time of need as he was at its beginning. Remember that even after a lifetime of incalculable service, if Christ had chosen to save himself from the cross, no atonement would have been possible.

Enduring as our commitment must be, so should our service be offered in wisdom and in temperance. King Benjamin understood this concept:

“I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.

“And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” (Mosiah 4:26–27.)

Being compassionate does not imply spreading ourselves so thin that all of our relationships become weaker. Husbands, wives, parents, immediate families—and some of our own needs—should receive highest priority. Each individual must then determine how far he can effectively extend himself beyond these circles while still maintaining order in his life and charity in his heart. We can hardly comfort all of humanity at once; but those to whom we do extend our love and concern are entitled to our deepest and most abiding compassion.

Once our commitment is made, timing is essential. A person in need cannot wait to be comforted. His time is today: his pain is now; his loneliness is immediate. And any would-be helper who delays a compassionate act may find that he has come upon the scene far too late to justify anything more than a wry smile of hurt indifference from the object of his belated concern.

“I thought of you often” makes a bittersweet postscript to days, weeks, or months of procrastination. And although neglect is often unintentional, the results are real, and in its wake lie wounded feelings and damaged relationships.

Our lives are increasingly busy. Time and need often slip away together, unnoticed. But to say “I’ll be thinking of you” at the beginning instead of “I thought of you” at the end will warm the heart and lighten the load ahead. Even if you can’t be physically present, knowing that you care will help to sustain him through his difficulty. And, though you can’t always be there, you can call or write or send a small remembrance. Today.

Bearing another’s burdens means being sensitive to every level of need—physical, emotional, and spiritual—and no giving is complete without some attention to each. I was grateful to the sweet sister who hurriedly left a freshly baked loaf of bread at my door. But how much more helpful it might have been if she had accompanied her get-well offering with the additional gift of herself! I wish she had known my longing for someone to weep with me, to laugh with me, to teach me, to love me through some of the griefs, pains, doubts, hopes, cares, and perplexities of life—if we could have sat together for only a little while—then the giving would have been complete and my day sweetened with her concern.

There are moments when touch is dear. I treasure memories of hands that held mine tight against pain, safe against fear, steady in the face of changing fortunes and troubled dreams. Hands often speak as voices cannot. They are a delicate comfort and cannot be forced upon the receiver, but when warmly offered and gratefully accepted, they impart a tangible emotional help and strength.

Hands bless, ordain, and heal. How appropriate, then, that we employ them as instruments of compassion.

A good chuckle can help, too. Illness or other distress can take on gloomy and monumental proportions. It’s hard to smile; heavy problems tend to draw the corners of the mouth downward, and tasteful humor can be welcome refreshment. One creative friend made an “advent calendar” looking toward my surgery. Another visited me daily in the hospital, thoroughly tickling my funny bone with her contagious wit and humor. There is a place for laughter in life, just as there is a place for love, beauty, song, and all other sources of joy.

Most illness will sooner or later be cured; the keenest edge of grief will pass; the heartache will heal with time. But there is a period somewhere between trauma and normality when needs are not so readily apparent, yet when there is still a need for sustained compassion to help through the “gray days” of transition.

Those days came for me during convalescence, when, after more than a year of heavy dependence on friends and family for physical, emotional, and spiritual support, I found myself facing good health again. In those unstable moments, health actually seemed to threaten withdrawal of the love, concern, and attention which I had been receiving from those close to me. But good friends sustained me until I had crossed safely over the sensitive line between sickness and health, regaining emotional stability and independence somewhere along the way.

We know that compassion means offering our time, energy, means, and loving concern to those who are in need. But there is another side to the coin of compassion: to receive warmly, graciously, without embarrassment or condescension, expressing thanks without a feeling of obligation. The receiver has the final power to complete or leave unfinished the circle of love. Much as we must receive Christ in order for the atonement to affect our lives, so must each individual be willing to accept compassionate service in his own behalf, or other people cannot realize the full joy of bearing another’s burdens.

Being human, we are seldom perfect in our service. We must remember the importance of repentance and forgiveness when compassion falls short or when demands seem unreasonable. Too often we forget to act, or we remember small injustices; we ask too much or give too little. All of these can be multiplied many times by a sensitive heart, and feelings on both sides can be wounded when expectations—even unreasonable ones—lie unfulfilled.

Self-doubt hinders our ability to give of ourselves; too often we shrink from giving much-needed help because we are convinced that we have nothing to offer. But care and friendship are gifts of inestimable value, and no one should underrate their importance.

We must be careful not to give for the wrong reasons. If we give in order to receive gratitude, then the receiver is embarrassed and feels obligated and the relationship suffers; but if we give sincerely, with genuine concern, both of us are edified and the bonds of friendship are strengthened.

For the giver, it is important to understand the nature of his brother’s struggle. A wise man once said, “I do not pity the wounded person—I become the wounded person.” Compassion is ultimately a matter of selflessness. In bearing another’s burdens we share intimately in his life.

While some are gifted with innately compassionate hearts, most of us must consciously seek to develop compassionate personalities. If we are anxious to serve, the Lord will extend his Spirit to soften our hearts and increase our capacities to meet other people’s needs. If we are fearful or uncertain in our efforts but willing to help, he will open avenues of service. Our capacity will be limited only by our commitment.

I often recall the radiant faces, warm hands, and loving hearts of those who assisted me. They did not lift my burden. They lifted me to bear it.

There is always time for loving, giving, receiving, caring, forgiving. But we must choose to be compassionate, or we’ll never find the time. Offering ourselves in the service of others is a prerequisite to inheriting eternal life, and unmeasured joy and satisfaction lie along the way for those who are sincere and anxious to bring comfort and peace to those in need. Our own bright circle of love is never-ending; it only widens as we enlarge our capacities to serve.

  • JoAnn Jolley, a research assistant and freelance writer, is Primary secretary in the Orem Utah Central Stake.

Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten