A Season of Compassion

“Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” –Henry Ward Beecher

“Mama was my greatest teacher, a teacher of compassion, love and fearlessness. If love is sweet as a flower, then my mother is that sweet flower of love.” –Stevie Wonder

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Merry Christmas, Seasons Greetings, Happy Holy Days.

Last night I watched a wonderful Frank Capra movie which embodies the idea of compassion. It’s Meet John Doe (1941). Hah! Fooled you. You thought I was going to write about his most famous of movies, It’s a Wonderful Life. Actually most of his movies that I’ve seen have similar themes. The little guy perseveres and changes the world, or at least his or her little part of it, through sharing compassion and love.

In Meet John Doe, times are bad. It’s during the Great Depression. At the beginning of the movie Barbara Stanwyck’s character Ann Mitchell, loses her job as a newspaper columnist. She’s supported her mother and two younger sisters, since her father’s death and needs the job desperately. So, she writes her last column including a fake letter from a man fed up with the politics of the day and with the incivility of regular people toward each other. Her fake John Doe vows to jump off the City Hall building on Christmas Eve in protest. This of course, she hopes will increase circulation of the paper and save her job. You might think from that description that Barbara Stanwyck’s character is mercenary. Well, yes she is, but for a very good reason which you find out as the movie goes along. Of course, eventually the paper has to hire a “John Doe”, played by Gary Cooper, because of accusations from another paper that the John Doe letter is fake, and it’s all been a publicity stunt.

At the heart of the movie is the groundswell of ordinary everyday people forming John Doe Clubs promoting compassion for their neighbors and making sure everyone in the community is taken care of.

What actually started me thinking about compassion, was Karen Armstrong’s interview with Oprah on Super Soul Sunday a few weeks ago. Karen, who was at one time a nun, has studied the religions of the world and her new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, points out that every single religion has compassion as a core tenet. Then a few days after watching the show, I saw Meet John Doe, and the two fit together perfectly.

Compassion is slightly different than love. To me, compassion is an ability to feel another’s pain and suffering; to understand that we all fall down and we all have a dark side. Just having a compassionate person’s presence, is a balm to both the sufferer and the one giving compassion. Therefore, compassion is one component of love. In her interview, Karen Armstrong pointed out that we all have a dark side and once we acknowledge our own ability to harm others, we can show compassion to others even though they may be showing only their dark side in the present moment.

That brings me back to the movie. John Doe is exposed as a fake, by someone who wants to use the clubs as a way to gain the White House. The crowds of people at the John Doe convention turn on him and revert back to their angry, wounded, pessimistic view of the world. That is, until John decides to fulfill the deed set out in the fake letter. One of the groups that we see earlier in the picture, come to the City Hall to stop him. Ann, played by Stanwyck is also there trying to keep him from jumping. It’s the climactic scene and we see that compassion lives on because of John’s message even though the powerful politicians try to crush it.

I know from experience, that compassion is a powerful force. Kind words at a crucial time in my life helped me find new purpose. Showing compassion for others is a way for the recipient to feel seen, heard and understood. I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but for 2014, I’m going to work on being more compassionate.

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