We live in a culture that has come to perceive the misfortune of others as must-see TV. From Judge Judy to Judge Wopner, from Ricki Lake to Jerry Springer, from high-speed car chases on the evening news to the sensationalized funerals of fallen pop icons, our culture has a strange love affair with the casual, discreet observation of tragedy and hard luck and human sin. As Bono of U2 once sang, I can’t tell the difference between ABC News and Hill Street Blues. It’s all so terribly entertaining. Call it social voyeurism.
The real life people with real human needs we see every day can so easily become for us just stories, dramas, mere actors or subjects on a stage. Consider the telling hospital scene in the movie, Patch Adams, as the interns make their daily rounds:
PROFESSOR: “Here we have a juvenile onset diabetic with poor circulation and diabetic neuropathy. As you can see these are diabetic ulcers with lymphedema and evidence of gangrene. Questions?”
STUDENT 1: “Any osteomyelitis?”
PROFESSOR: (As he looks at medical chart). “None apparent, although not definitive.”
STUDENT 2: “Treatment?”
PROFESSOR: “To stabilize the blood sugar…consider antibiotics…possibly amputation.” (Patient gasps and pulls the bed sheets tightly around her neck).
PATCH: (from the back of the group): “What’s her name? …I was just wondering the patient’s name.”
PROFESSOR: (glancing at the chart). “Marjorie.”
PATCH: “Hi, Marjorie.”
MARJORIE: (with a big smile). “Hi.”
PROFESSOR: (clearing his throat). “Yes…uh…, thank you. Let’s move on.”
The longest journey we will ever take in our lives is the journey from the head to the heart, where what we see and hear and think about the stranger is humanized in the form of genuine empathy. Here, in the heart, the stranger becomes an equal, a friend.
But the second longest journey we will take — and the most important journey of all — is from the heart to the gut, where our empathy is surpassed by an unmistakable sense of compassionate responsibility to the stranger. Here, at the gut level, we are compelled to do something.
The Greek verb in the New Testament for “having compassion” is splagchnizomai. Splagchnizomai is rooted in another Greek word that means “entrails” (our vital, internal organs). When, for example, Jesus encounters 5000 hungry people with no one to feed them, he is “overcome with compassion” (Matthew 14). It’s not an intellectual response; nor is it even an emotional or sentimental response. What he feels is visceral – something felt deep inside, at the gut level, which cannot be subjugated. Jesus knows he must do something. And he does.
The path to a more hospitable life leads us from our casual, distant observation of the stranger’s plight, toward a genuine empathy that transforms strangers into friends, until finally we are overcome by a deep-seated, gut-wrenching love that compels us to do something for them.
In a world that says, “Let’s move on,” it’s a narrow path for most of us. Because we are not apt to take it, it requires a conscious choice.
Photo Credit: qthomasbower