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
Love of country is an old-fashioned virtue, but one grounded in an important truth: those who love their country, work hardest for its betterment and sacrifice the most for its ideals. In 240-plus years of American history, love of country has inspired many to go beyond self, putting their lives on the line for their nation and its ideals. We owe a great deal to those heroes who “in liberating strife, more than self their country loved,” as Katherine Lee Bates described them in “America the Beautiful.” And every February, my own family has special reason to be grateful to those heroes, because, without them, none of us would be here.
Our special date is February third, because on that Saturday night in 1945, the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Division and its 44th Tank Battalion crashed through the iron gates of Santo Tomas Internment Camp in Manila. Hundreds of young GIs liberated nearly four thousand American and Allied civilians. Those men, women, and seven hundred children had experienced captivity, disease, squalor, cruelty, and unrelenting hunger for more than three years. Many were dying of starvation. My mother, sixteen-year-old Leonore (“Lee”) Iserson, was among the cheering throngs who greeted the GIs that night.
Lee and her family, along with thousands of U.S. nationals, had been living and doing business in the Philippines (American territory before the war). They were caught off guard on December 8, 1941. Just hours after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Rising Sun forces attacked Clark Air Base in Manila and the U.S. fleet at Subic Bay. By Christmas, American troops under Douglas MacArthur marched out of the city, and on January 2, 1942, the Japanese marched in. Within a month the Imperial Japanese Army had imprisoned thousands of American and Allied civilians at the University of Santo Tomas, where they were held in deteriorating conditions for thirty-seven months.
On the night that GIs liberated them, young Lee was five-foot-five inches tall and weighed 93 pounds. Her equally tall mother, Agnes, was down to 87 pounds. Lee remembered that night well. “We girls were dressed up because it was a Saturday night, and there were rumors.” At 9 PM, when tanks with terrifyingly long guns crashed through the camp gates, internees at first feared the worst. Was this the Japanese military come to finish them off? But huge uniformed men with submachine guns walked beside the tanks, and a burly mountain of a man with machine gun in hand surged from the well of one tank. He shot a Japanese guard in a watch tower, and another tank wheeled around to take out a Japanese machine-gun nest near the Main Building.
Shouts of “They’re ours! They’re Americans!” rang out, and delirious internees swarmed the liberators, cheering, blowing kisses, and yes, climbing on the tanks. One GI shouted to an effusive matron: “Get out of the way, lady. We gotta a war to fight here!” And another yelled, “Moms and Dads, hold the kids! Don’t let them on the tanks!” The ex-prisoners had the presence of mind to back off a bit, and within an hour tanks Battlin’ Basic, Georgia Peach, Ole Miss, and San Antone had secured the camp. Behind them came dozens of jeeps and the tanks Block Buster and Crusader.
That night a battle raged outside the gates of Santo Tomas, and even within, a stand-off took place between liberating troops and Japanese soldiers holding hostages in the camp’s Ed Building. But joyful delirium reigned on the university’s front lawn. One gunner in the tank Ole Miss surveyed the jubilant civilian crowd and drawled, “We been liberatin’ jungles and swamps. Now, women and children—this is more like it!”
GIs tossed candy bars and Lucky Strikes to the hungry crowds, and children again scrambled up on the tanks to kiss them. In one corner of the university’s front lawn, a small group of internees started singing God Bless America. Their voices swelled, and as the din subsided, more grateful internees took up the song. Land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her. My grandmother’s husky alto voice rose for the first time in three years, as strains of Kate Smith’s signature song welled everywhere around them.
Lee recalled: “At that moment pride in my country, so deep that it was almost painful, rushed through me.” Through the night with the light from above. A crescent moon gleamed overhead and one brilliant star of the Southern Cross seemed to wink right at her. From the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam. On the banks of Manila Bay, the entire camp sang, Brits and Aussies happily joining in. Lee sang as loudly as she could. God bless America, my home sweet home. God bless America, my home sweet home! In the stillness after the last note, one of the GIs on the San Antone choked out, “I ain’t never heard that sung better.” Tears streamed down his face, and a deafening chorus of cheers erupted from the internees.
Throughout her life, Lee would reflect on her family’s extraordinary thirty-seven-month ordeal at Santo Tomas, but also, on the internees' unwavering faith in their country. “We were sure our boys would be back for us. We never gave up.” And neither did the U.S. armed forces, those hero-boys from Montana, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Mississippi and Ohio, who were prepared to put their own lives on the line for the freedom of their countrymen. God bless America. And God bless those who more than self their country love. -Mary Beth Klee