On the day of the shooting of so many people, young and old in Arizona, I was submerged in an overwhelming wave of sadness, not only for the victims and their loved ones, but also for the shooter and his parents. My heart flooded with compassion for all those affected by this tragedy. In situations like these, our first impulse is to try to make sense of what happened. The way we go about doing that is to fit it into some framework that we understand. We immediately look for someone or something to blame, allowing us to firmly gear our outrage and emotions toward a fixed representation – one that fits neatly into prescribed descriptions of criminals, “bad guys”, those with odd behaviors or philosophies that repudiate our way of life. We latch on to political or ideological factions as the cause of tragedy. To settle our hearts and minds we neatly place and label what occurred so that we can sleep at night.
Because of the shooting, I have been thinking a lot lately about the word compassion and how it lends us a way to acknowledge and suffer wounds both big and small. What happened in Arizona on that bright sunny Saturday has changed the lives of not only those that were there that day, but the lives of all of us. It is a reminder, in measured time, that things occur which make no sense, which shred our belief of the goodness of all human beings. We will continue to ask why, we will examine the collective conscious of our country, our mental health system, our politics, our laws, and our belief that we are in a country where individual freedom trumps most everything else. As the pundits comment on the ills of society, as the collective demands retribution, Mike Kelly, the husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords was demonstrating compassion.
Last week in an interview with ABC he was quoted as saying, "I don't think it's their fault. It's not the parents' fault," Kelly told ABC. "You know, I'd like to think I'm a person that's, you know, somewhat forgiving. And, I mean, they've got to be hurting in this situation as much as anybody”. Kelly said he understands what it is like to be a parent. "I'm sure they love their son”, he said. "They must be distraught over this, as all of us are."Asked whether he would be willing to meet the Loughners, Kelly responded, "I'd probably see them." After reading Mike Kelly’s sentiments, I looked up the definition of compassion, and I would like to share that with you today:
Compassion (from Latin: "co-suffering") is a virtue —one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy are regarded as a part of love itself, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnectedness and humanism —foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood. Also a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
So as Mike Kelly’s wife Gabrielle Giffords silently and slowly makes progress towards healing, he seems to find the ability to look beyond anger toward Loughner’s parents and imagine their pain and sorrow. His demonstration of compassion in no way excuses the shooter’s behavior or dismisses the atrocity of all that occurred. However, it reminds us that in every situation, in every action, there is the potential for compassion. As counselors, we often model compassion, we try to plant the seed in others, we advocate for those that are marginalized, those that are held to ridicule. We try to help others make sense of senseless situations, we shore up the demoralized, the beaten down, those who feel helpless and hopeless. In every one of those cases, we do our best to focus on the person, to see the human being that suffers. One of the most powerful things we do as counselors is to see and hear the client that sits before us. When we see and hear, when we offer empathy and sympathy, we extend compassion. Compassion – the beginning of healing.
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.