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Compassion: Talk the talk, walk the walk

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines "compassion" as "the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it." Wow, a desire to alleviate it!

Compassion should go one step further. It should do something instead of just desiring to do something. Compassion does something. It is a feeling deep within ourselves -- a "quivering of the heart" -- and it is also a way of acting -- being affected by the suffering of others and moving on their behalf. Buddha, Mother Teresa and Jesus are three of many well known life examples of compassion, and it is the central ethical virtue in their examples that developed from their core values.

Showing compassion is a glimpse into the heart of God. The practice of compassion is often likened to opening the heart. First, you must allow yourself to feel the suffering in the world, including your own. Don't turn away from pain; move toward it with courage. Go into situations where people are hurting. Identify with your neighbors in their distress. Compassion increases our capacity to care. It reinforces charity, empathy and sympathy. To put it another way, it is very good exercise for your heart muscle.

I love the story of a fifth-grade class at Lake Elementary School in Oceanside, Calif., that had fourteen boys who had no hair. Only one, however, had no choice in the matter. Ian O'Gorman, was undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma, and all his hair was falling out, so he had his head shaved. But then, 13 of his classmates shaved their heads, so Ian wouldn't feel out of place. 10-year-old Kyle Hanslik started it all. He talked to some other boys, and before long, they all trekked to the barbershop.

"The last thing he would want is to not fit in," Kyle said. "We just wanted to make him feel better."

Sometimes we are so inwardly focused on our wants, needs and preferences we often fail to look outwardly. We can never be the compassionate people we should be if we are looking inwardly more than we are outwardly. I believe we can't just be willing to do good; we also need to seek out opportunities to show to people the compassion we have by the actions we take.

We are bombarded with messages today that pull us out of arms of love and compassion and push us deeper into the jaws of apathy. Attitudes such as "whatever" and "who cares" and "so what?" dominate our thoughts. This apathetic attitude blinds us from seeing the harassed, the helpless, the abused, the addicted, the broken and the oppressed. It emotionally insulates us from feeling the pain of others. Simply put: Apathy is disgusting. Famous American author George Bernard Shaw once said, "The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity."

I must admit that sometimes I am not as compassionate as I would like to be or as I should be. For as long as I can remember I've had a compassionate heart, but sometimes I struggle to love people and to show compassion as exemplified by those mentioned earlier. Does anyone else feel the same way? After all, as we reflect on the Golden Rule: love our neighbor as ourselves, The prophet Muhammed echoed that saying, "Do you love your creator? Love your fellow-beings first."

The truth of the matter is that we, on this place called earth, are called to show that same type of compassion and love towards other people in this world. I realize the things I do are not the most important things, but perhaps God's love for us and and my love for other people is. Unfortunately, so often, our love for people is drowned out in our own busyness, stinginess or cleanliness, and we forget what it is all about and what is most important. Life should revolve around how we interact and respond to others and the compassion and love we show to them.

Let us strive to show compassion to all people. We live in a world that is hurting. We live in a world where people are depressed and broken. Compassion goes straight into the heart and will create a gut-wrenching feeling in which we empathetically identify with the brokenness of another person. Sometimes it is just being there for someone when they need help; to help carry each other's burdens.

As we build our compassionate heart, search for clear examples of compassionate people. Consider famous people, family members and co-workers. Look for ways they show compassion and how you can adopt them for your use.

Historical examples of extraordinarily compassionate people probably wore Nikes because their actions clearly spoke these three words, "Just do it." Love and compassion shared will turn the world upside down. Now is the time to be truly compassionate. No more excuses! No more coasting! It's time to take action!

Compassion: Just do it!

(Editor's Note: This article is one of several highlighting the Air Force Space Command Year of Leadership and its focus on compassion.)