Over 50 years ago, Karl Menninger, a leader in shaping the field of psychotherapy, asked a poignant and prophetic question.
“Whatever Became of Sin?” Nobody seemed to use the word.
The question came to mind when I saw a headline I was tempted to skip over. “Churches prepare to mark Nov. 7 day of prayer for persecuted Christians”.
I am glad I read further.
“It will be yet another opportunity to intercede on behalf of the estimated 260 million believers around the world who are experiencing high to extreme forms of persecution due to their faith.“
Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” It is the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.
I stopped for a moment. I asked myself “why would I skip over something as simple as praying for 260 million people suffering for their faith”?
Whatever became of my sense of compassion?
I like to think of myself as a compassionate person. After all, I identify with the “Good” Samaritan. When I am face-to-face with someone who is hurting my heart goes out to the person.
Why is 1 more important to me than 260 million?
My question became clearer. Is my compassion limited to just people I know or directly encounter? Where is my compassion for 260 million such individuals, each with a face and a history?
There is a baffling aspect of the human response to the plight of others. While most of us will see a single death as a tragedy, we struggle to have the same response to large-scale loss of life. Too often, the deaths of many simply become a statistic.
Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, has been studying psychic numbing for decades. He believes we don’t deal with magnitudes very well.
“If we’re talking about lives, one life is tremendously important and valuable and we’ll do anything to protect that life, save that life, rescue that person. But as the numbers increase, our feelings don’t commensurately increase as well.”
He devised an experiment.
Participants taking part in the study were shown pictures of a single child, but half were also given statistics about the number of other people starving in the region where the child was from. It is exactly the sort of approach that many of us will have seen in charity videos after natural disasters.
“We thought if we showed how serious the problem was, people would be more motivated to help. Instead, donations dropped in half when the photo included the statistics.“(I encourage you to read a short, well-written BBC presentation of his research.)
Now, think back. Were you horrified in the initial days of COVID. “The death toll could reach 50,000!”
Think now of the over 5 million reported deaths worldwide… with many countries vastly under-reporting.
Compassion fatigue? Yes, but not to those who have lost their parent, spouse, or a child.
Going beyond our psychic numbing… God is not affected by the limitations of psychic numbing.
Jesus reminds us. God cares for and searches out each of billions of sheep.
Jesus shows us. He did not just wash the feet of Peter. He washed the feet of everyone in the room, especially on the cross.
Jesus challenged us. “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters you do for me.”
“Do this in memory of me.”
Practically every day Pope Francis asks us to see the face of suffering behind the statistics which can be overwhelming!
We need to pray. God help us to have compassion not just for terrified Christians… but also for those not born, those discriminated against, or those suffering at the end of life. “Let us pray!”
Click below for an audio version of this Vincentian Mindwalk