Compassion (noun) 1. A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
--Random House Dictionary
I’ve never had cancer so I can’t ever really imagine what it is truly like. To find a lump or feel a strange pain and then go to the doctor and ask, “Well, what do you think it is?” To get a biopsy and then anxiously wait for the results. To finally get the call and hear this dreaded phrase from the doc: “You have cancer.” To leave the office in a daze, spiritually and emotionally wrestling with the news. “Am I going to die? What about the kids?” To be the loved one of someone with cancer, a heartbroken Mom, a fearful Dad, a devastated spouse, a bewildered friend: “How can I help them?”
I’ve never had cancer but so, so many have and do, 1.6 million folks diagnosed with it in the United States in 2011; almost 600,000 deaths from cancer last year alone. All of them were and are friends and family and neighbors and fellow church members and co-workers. The thing about cancer, or any potentially fatal disease, is you really can’t understand it unless it’s touched you directly, gotten too close for comfort. So although I’ve never personally faced it, as a pastor I’ve met cancer, gotten to know it all too well. In chemotherapy waiting rooms, holding a person’s hand while the medicine drips away. At the hospital bedside saying a prayer. Delivering a eulogy for a child of God, a precious life I know ended much too soon. The big “C” is big and frightening and just plain awful.
Yet as a person of faith I believe there is something even more powerful than cancer, even tougher than a cell which malignantly multiplies and threatens a human life. It’s not the latest medicine or medical breakthrough, though such advances are important. It is instead compassion: the human virtue and often faith inspired impulse to courageously enter into the suffering of another person and then be so moved and so changed by that encounter that we then have to do something.
Compassion is more than human pity which can be a kind of distant safe relationship with the hurting. “Boy, that person is in pain.” It is not sympathy which is a deeper feeling but still somehow keeps us separate from the other. “I feel so bad for them.” Compassion is not even empathy which can be among the deepest form of human caring: “I feel your pain.”
Compassion is a wholly different emotion, a response to another’s pain so powerful, so convicting, and so clear that when we feel compassion we actually move towards and even into the pain of the other. We declare, “I will do something to help.”
It’s difficult to capture the visceral nature of compassion but the Bible offers two examples. In ancient Hebrew the word racham connotes a Godly compassion which is womblike, tenderness as close as that of a mother to a child. The Greek word for compassion, which describes Jesus response to the hurting is splagchnizomai and translates as the moving within of our innards, our guts, to another person’s hurt. Ever experienced another’s pain as a “kick in the gut”? That’s human compassion. The key always is action. We see. We hurt with. We respond.
So in compassion we drive our friend, who’s got cancer, to the doctor’s office week after week after week. We lift up their name in prayer Sabbath by Sabbath. We deliver a casserole or fried chicken to their backdoor. Or we ride a bike, compassion on two wheels, in the Pan Massachusetts Challenge (PMC), the big Daddy of all athletic fundraisers. In a little under a month, on August 4th and 5th, I and more than 5,000 folks, will ride 85 to 110 miles, from Wellesley to Bourne to Provincetown, to raise money for cancer care and research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Each of us, along with the 3,000 people who support our ride, will do this for many reasons. I ride for family and friends who face cancer and have died from it, especially this year for a sweet and kind and funny 14 year old girl from Sherborn named Nora. I ride for her, in her memory and in honor of her courage and spirit.
Some ride for the sheer athletic challenge of spinning the pedals 152,000 times to get from the heart of the Bay State to the tip of the Cape. Some ride to see if an old body can actually still do this. Three hundred folks who will ride are cancer survivors. How’s that for compassionate strength? Some ride for Moms who died of breast cancer, Dad’s who survived prostate cancer, or a co-worker who is in the midst of chemo.
But there is one truth which binds us all together in this crazy and committed cycling community: compassion. A shared hope that more than any other power in the world, it will be compassion which will one day finally and ultimately beat the disease of cancer. A cure can and will come but first we must care.
You can help too. Pray for us, for good weather and a swift tail wind and safety. Pray for all the folks with cancer who will benefit from the $36 million we are trying to raise. Or make a donation to the PMC at pmc.org. Just click on the “donate” button and you’ll get to ride along with us too. You won’t even have to risk a sore backside to be an honorary PMC’er.
I’ve never had cancer but God willing, I can and I will have compassion. All of us can take this risk and be engaged in our sometimes hurting world with a brave spirit of seeing someone else’s suffering and then doing something about it.
The journey beckons. The challenge is tough. But my hopes and prayers are always staked on the power of compassion. See you on the road.