J. Marshall Jenkins

Author, Therapist, Spiritual Director

Privilege and the Compassion Deficit

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Privilege isolates us unless we respect our own suffering.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).

I was born into privilege.  More than I can deserve, being white, male, and heterosexual made the way easier, and I benefited from the support of many.  I accept that, and I thank my parents and all who gave me so much.

Yet, nothing disturbs me more than the callous politics and morality of so many like me.  Perhaps I find most disturbing the seeds of the same angry smugness within myself.  I want to unearth those seeds and minister to that lost person of privilege within me and perhaps within you.

We face a predicament.  Our forebears left us a legacy of responsibility.  We believe that we make our destinies as individuals.  We consider society only as good as the mass of rugged individuals makes it.  So we cannot bear the news of our failure.

I recall a paragraph from Henri Nouwen and friends:

We might ask, however, whether mass communication directed to millions of people who experience themselves as small, insignificant, powerless individuals does not in fact do more harm than good.  When there is no community that can mediate between world needs and personal responses, the burden of the world can only be a crushing burden.  When the pains of the world are presented to people who are already overwhelmed by the problems in their small circle of family and friends, how can we hope for a creative response?  What we can expect is the opposite of compassion: numbness and anger.[1]

More than our federal budget deficit and national trade deficit, I worry about our moral compassion deficit.  Presumably, the compassion deficit results from a chain of factors including 24/7 news.  But as much as I commend watching less TV, that won’t reduce the deficit much.  In the Beatitudes — especially his promise of mercy to the merciful — Jesus points to another way to start paying it off:

We need to respect our own suffering.

We constructed a culture of never-let-them-see-you-sweat and of shame over the natural sadness and anxiety of living.  Such shame blocks compassion for those who suffer in broad daylight, especially those with less privilege.  Better, I might say, to blame the victim.  After all, if I believe nobody should have compassion on me, why should I have compassion on another?

If I do not respect my own suffering, I will challenge the sufferer’s right to get help, especially with my tax dollars.  Nobody pays taxes to help me, I might declare.  But then I am too proud to accept help, even from Jesus.

We may never fully understand the pain of those less privileged, but we need not understand to care.  We must acknowledge our need for the mercy of Jesus.  Then when we offer mercy, Jesus will meet us more than halfway.  Whether we believe in him by name or by that hauntingly loving presence we sense in moments of vulnerable openness, only through him can we build the compassion surplus we desperately need.

[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, & Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. (New York: Image, 1983), p. 51.

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J. Marshall Jenkins

About J. Marshall Jenkins

J. Marshall Jenkins is an author, psychotherapist, teacher, and spiritual director. For several years he has been writing on the Beatitudes for people in emotional pain, publishing biweekly here on his Beatitudes Blog at http://www.jmarshalljenkins.com. His newest book, Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith and Hope with the Beatitudes, is now available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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2 Replies

  1. John Countryman

    I very much appreciated your comments about compassion fatigue today. I had an experience over the weekend that led me to think that the best definition of wisdom (for me, at least) was not a question of acquired knowledge but rather sincere empathy and the courage to act in response to the impulse for compassion.

    1. jmarshalljenkins.com

      Refreshing words from a very learned man! You bring out a point implied in today’s post: Rational response to human need requires emotional intelligence, not just a vast knowledge base and analytical skill.

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