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Compassion: A Heavy Heart

By Karen Austin

Photo by Quinn Dombrowki

I learned a long time ago that if I pray for patience, I invite trials.

But I am just gaining an understanding of what happens when you pray for compassion.  You gain two things: a great awareness of your own shortcomings as well as a great awareness of other peoples’ pain and suffering.   If I start thinking that I have it all figured out compared to other people, I am soon receive a reminder that I am a beggar before God (Mosiah 4:19).  Ah.

Now I understand the scripture that pride precedes the fall (Proverbs 16:18).

I’m trying to find a stance in relation to the suffering now made visible before me because I’m serving in a Relief Society presidency.  As an oldest child, type A, ambitious person, I am tempted to rush in and take over when others struggle.  However, I can’t rescue people from the hardships of their lives.  If I did, I would be unable to manage my responsibilities to my own family.  More importantly, I would deny others the opportunity to claim their own successes.

It’s an act of vanity on my part to try to rescue or fix someone else. True compassion means that I support them as they work out their salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord  (Philippians 2:12).  I can only stand as a witness to the growth they experience with the help of divine assistance.

My job is to be a cheerleader.  I can offer a listening ear. I can validate their feelings. I can articulate their strengths. I can show affection. I can communicate respect.  I can offer small measures of physical comfort such as a ride, a meal, a tissue or a hug.

I’ve also learned that I cannot make goals for other people.  Instead, I’m learning to listen to the goals they already have and then decide how my time and talents can be offered in support of their righteous desires.

For example, I might too easily think that a woman needs to quit her current job and pursue a different line of work that might be better for her time constraints or her physical limits. However, if she is currently working on goals to help her daughter overcome a bout with depression, I should instead loan her support there. There is a time and a season for all things (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

Right now the most salient scriptural text for my studies in compassion comes from King Benjamin’s speech. I have found myself reading and rereading Mosiah 4 in an effort to better understand the nature of compassion.  This chapter calls us to give our resources to others, to avoid judging them for their predicament, to remember our own dependence on God for mercy, and to acknowledge our own limitations—to not run faster than we can.

Almost every day, I find that I have to keep all four of these principles in balance.  It’s as though I’m standing on a pallet that’s set on a round rock. If I don’t keep all four of these concepts in mind, I start to lean and threaten to slide off. My new mantra? Give to Others, Don’t Judge, Be Humble, and Recognize Limits.

I don’t know when I will pray to put off another vice typical of the natural man in favor of adopting a virtue of the saints (Mosiah 3:19).  But when I do, I need to remember to steel myself.

Emily Dickinson says that “hope is the thing with feathers.” Initially, I was expecting that by pursuing compassion I would gain a lightness, euphoria and giddiness akin to infatuation. Instead, I might draft a poem where “love is the thing with weights.”  I feel a greater heaviness of heart as I connect more with other people’s pain in an effort to demonstrate compassion.  The silver lining is that I feel a greater dependence on God’s grace and mercy as I walk arm and arm with others on the pathway from mortality to immortality.  And every once and I while, I do feel a burden lifted (Matthew 11:28) because there is Another walking with us.



About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

11 thoughts on “Compassion: A Heavy Heart”

  1. Beautiful, Karen. I SO get this. It's true within our families, too. Painful as it is to watch our children struggle and suffer (needlessly, since of course we moms know what they need to do to escape the suffering) I keep reminding myself that it is their journey, not mine, and I am here to walk with them, not for them.

  2. i was just reading moses chapter 7 this morning and came across language in verse 41 that i've never noticed before:

    "wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook."

    i loved this imagery and i hope to teach my heart to swell wide as eternity with compassion for the misery of others.

  3. Having just finished The Chosen I am reminded of the themes of carrying others' burdens resolved, and not resolved, at its conclusion. To listen to the silence is a gift; to bear the silence alone is perhaps an unnecessary burden; to save the world exhausts us. Speaking, not speaking, connecting, feeling between the connections – so many ways. Two fathers, both exhausted. We are not to run faster than we have strength, but sometimes our only option is to run at the maximum of our strength, and in those some times, we become exhausted. I don't know if there is an answer – only experience. Even Christ retired tired to the mountains for times. Bless all our hearts. I just keep coming back to Christ's invitation – Come unto me, ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. There is a way to do this but I would imagine it will take a lifetime to learn it. May we keep praying for the hard things.

  4. Love this line: "love is the thing with weights."

    True, love can weigh us down, but it grounds us at the same time and can be an anchor when we feel like we might blow away. I look forward to your poem 🙂

  5. I want to see the poem too, Karen.

    Your intents and words here are so kind. It is so hard to figure out how to love in a way that lets go of judgement or problem solving. I want to help and often it is irresistible to want to support them in what I think is best rather than just supporting those I love because I support them through love of them and not through love of what they do or don't do. Lovely reminder. Love is a weighty thing that grounds us.

  6. Love this: " True compassion means that I support them as they work out their salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord (Philippians 2:12). I can only stand as a witness to the growth they experience with the help of divine assistance."

    I know as I went through my divorce, friends who honored those boundaries really empowered me. They listened and helped me think through how I was going to support myself and my children. Their loving compassion and respect helped me accept the burden that was on my shoulders so I could climb.

  7. Karen, thanks for sharing your feelings as you've delved into a more compassionate mindset. (I'd also love to read the poem that I hope you'll draft on "the thing with weights.")

    I think there's a third tine on compassion's serving fork bridging the gap between an awareness of your own shortcomings and that of others' suffering. Like the I-prayed-for-patience-and-got-this obstacle (that offers practice in developing it), sometimes it takes the infliction of deep, piercing pain of your own (whether physical, emotional, or spiritual) to reach beyond a well-intended (but perhaps somewhat superficial) kindness into significant empathetic compassion.

    I appreciate your expression of these easily measured gestures:
    "My job is to be a cheerleader. I can offer a listening ear. I can validate their feelings. I can articulate their strengths. I can show affection. I can communicate respect. I can offer small measures of physical comfort such as a ride, a meal, a tissue or a hug."
    They may represent "small measures," but to those in need of compassion, such deeds are of immeasurable value.

  8. Thank you for reading / commenting.

    Lisa: I like your statement "walk with them, not for them." Well expressed.

    Debra: I've read Moses 7 a number of times over the years, but that verse 41 has not stood out to me in the way you draw attention to it. Thank you very much for pointing it out.

    Bonnie: "Come unto Me." Yes! But how that takes on new meaning in every age and stage. Thanks for punctuating that quote.

    Rhonda: Hugs!

    Christie: Weight is grounding. Oh, there's the silver lining.

    Sandra: It is hard! Dangit.

    Michelle: No, thank YOU for reading. Sometimes I feel as though I am muttering to myself and not making any sense.

    Johnna: Oh, I am so happy to read that you had a supportive network to help you through a challenging life transition.

    Teresa Bruce: Thanks. I often feel that grand gestures are required, but it's good to hear that small measures actually do have a positive effect.

    I hope you are all enjoying the beauty of autumn wherever you are (or beauty of spring for those Segullah readers south of the equator!).


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