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Monday, 27 August 2012

The Compassion-Blame Continuum

   It’s a very old story; many say it is the oldest book in the Bible.  A man named Job experiences one catastrophe after another, and his three friends come to comfort him.  During the first seven days and seven nights, “they sat on the ground with him…No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13).  This is compassion.  It is not always necessary to use words because presence speaks volumes.
   At the end of one week, the friends move into investigator mode and try to figure out who is to blame for all the losses Job has suffered.  Their compassion evaporates as they bombard him with speeches that presume there is a secret sin in Job’s life.
   We give Job’s friends a hard time, but isn’t it true that we often turn from comforter to investigator in minutes.  We find out an acquaintance has been in a car accident, and the next thing we want to know is if he or she was at fault.  A news report tells of a fatal lightning strike and before letting the pain of such an event touch us, we think someone should have followed safety rules during an electrical storm.
   Why is it so important to us as humans to lay blame?  I’ve been pondering this for more than a decade after one woman’s comments to me when one of my cousins tragically lost his life.  I think there are at least three reasons that we lean towards being amateur investigators of tragic events:
  • It protects us from the real pain of the situation by distracting us from the main issue.  Let’s face it: compassion is costly emotionally and relationally.
  • It can assure us that the same terrible thing could never happen to us.  It’s is a delusion, of course, because nobody is immune to tragedy in one form or other.
  • It gives us a way to vent anger.  When things are not “the way they’re supposed to be,” blaming someone (even the victim) can feel better than remaining silent.
   It is a big world out there with so much misery.  Our emotional resources are limited, but approaching human suffering with compassion is still the best option for those of us who are not paid to respond to emergencies.  When it comes to judging, we can leave that to the One who is all-knowing.

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