Compassion is feeling the pain of others and acting to end their distress. Our March Core Virtues definition springs from the Latin roots of the word itself: “Com”—to stand with the other; “passion”—we enter into his or her pain. The compassionate person reaches out to those in need, seeking to serve rather than be served. The names Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, and Clara Barton leap to mind as modern representatives of that ancient virtue. Jesus and the Buddha are religious embodiments, who inspire their followers.
We see compassion in action daily, though it’s not usually front-page news. Compassion motivates the many who staff town soup kitchens and homeless shelters, who volunteer at nursing homes or crisis pregnancy centers, who teach English to local immigrant families or assist with their housing, who volunteer in literacy programs, or donate to the Red Cross or Wounded Warriors. It inspires those who work for hunger relief and potable water worldwide.
Compassion is the virtue that springs from the other “coms” in our lives: community, commitment and commiseration, leading finally to communion – or oneness with our fellows. It is born of the visceral understanding that we are all in this together, bound by struggle, by pain, and ultimately, by hope.
Every so often, one breathtaking embodiment of the virtue of compassion stops us in our tracks. Here’s a recent one. On September 23, 2017 an Albuquerque police officer saw a man and woman seated in a grassy area, preparing to shoot up with heroin. They were oblivious to the officer, and as he approached Officer Ryan Holets realized that the woman was very pregnant. With his body camera rolling, he asked the woman, “why are you goin’ to be doing this stuff… you’re gonna kill your baby.” A drugged, emotional mother wept and agonized with the officer about her child’s future. She revealed that she planned to give the child up for adoption, but her worst fear was that the child would be taken by the State and end up in a horrible foster care situation.
Ryan Holets said it was clear to him that despite her unwise choices, this mother loved her baby, and while they talked she put aside the needle. He went back to his car to think and knew what he was being called to do. When he returned to Crystal Champs, the expectant mother, he didn’t arrest the woman and her partner. He showed her a photo of his wife and four children (all under age five), and said, “We’ll adopt your baby. We’ll raise her.” He gave them his phone number, and a heart-felt offer of a future for her child.
That night, Rebecca Holets, Ryan’s extraordinary wife, listened in awe to what her husband told her about his day. Rebecca was still nursing their ten-month-old, yet the two had discussed becoming foster parents before: they felt in the future they had more parenting love to give. The future was here, and Rebecca was excited. A week later, Crystal and her partner agreed to the adoption, and in October, Crystal delivered a baby girl. The infant went through the struggles of meth withdrawal upon birth, but is otherwise healthy. Eleven days after her arrival in the world, Ryan and Rebecca took their new daughter home. They named her “Hope.”
This story of communion, borne of compassion, does not end there. The Holets were from the start concerned about Crystal, and her partner. They started a “Go Fund Me” page for the two, trying to get them into rehabilitation. When CNN covered the story in September, a Rehab and Recovery center offered them places and they’ve been in treatment and doing well. Despite an enormous struggle, the couple has now been sober for more than forty days.
The heartbreak in this story is palpable, but so is the compassion shown by so many. Obviously, there’s the empathy of Officer Holets and his magnanimous wife Rebecca, who saw a human life in the balance, and said “we will do this,” even though the timing for them was not ideal. Then there was the compassion of the mother, Crystal Champs, who got herself off drugs for the final stretch of her pregnancy and had the largeness of heart and spirit to let her little girl go, to allow her adoption by another family. Then there’s the compassion of the many people who contributed to the Go Fund Me page for the biological parents, and the Rehab center that offered scholarship treatment for these two people in need.
In this story, we only have heroes and heroines. Every once in a while, when we are inclined to despair of our grasping, self-serving world, when it seems like everyone around us is elbowing past others and looking out for Number One, we need to be reminded that …. there is Hope. Mary Beth Klee