From the time we enter school, we are taught that to understand something we must assess, label, group, compare and define it. While this may be effective for learning shapes, numbers and various academic or scientific subjects, it actually inhibits our ability to feel compassion, have empathy and act with charity toward other people.
Sages and saints, philosophers and prophets have tried to teach people for centuries that striving for understanding only through mortal methods not only impedes our capacity to feel true sympathy but also constricts our capacity to minister in the purest and most powerful way.
For example, when we see a homeless man on the street, it is easy to begin to assess him, label his problems, group him with a class of addicts, compare him to partying junkies and define him by his current circumstances.
Similarly, when we notice a single mother at a shelter or a government agency requesting services, we can inappropriately start the same process to assess, label, group, compare and define her by what we see on the surface.
Less conspicuous is what happens when we meet a family who seems to have it all together with a great job, good kids, nice house, financial means and success. We assess that they are living the dream, label them as wealthy, group them with the elite, compare them to the famous and define them as the “perfect family.”
In each case, what the last thing these individuals need is an assessment, label, grouping, comparison or definition of their lives so we can make their world make sense to us. What they need — the only thing they need — is our compassion, empathy and charity.
The homeless man may be college-educated and of a brilliant mind; the single mother may have had an abusive spouse or simply a string of bad breaks, and the seemingly perfect family may be deeply disconnected, filled with loneliness and even despair. None needs a lecture. All could use an open mind, a helping hand and a listening ear.
People today need less critical analysis and more compassionate understanding.
Often we are uncomfortable pursuing the path to deeper understanding and the core needs of the people we encounter each day. So we use our process of the understanding model to simply address the surface-level problems while missing out on more meaningful opportunities to minister and help.
My daughter Sarah learned this while serving those living in a leper colony in India. She said, “I can go and put bandages on people or help paint a wall or build a school, but actually loving the unlovables is the only thing that will ever make a difference in the true progress of people and communities.”
Suspending judgment and acting on the impulses of our better angels always takes us to more significant impact opportunities.
In a historic address to nearly 50,000 people at Safeco Field in Seattle, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints implored his listeners to a higher and holier way of ministering and serving others in both their congregations and communities.
He said, “A fundamental characteristic of followers of Jesus Christ is the desire and willingness to care for others. This is also why the church actively engages in humanitarian service around the globe. Whether we are digging wells in Africa, providing wheelchairs to those in need in Peru, or among the first to respond after natural disasters anywhere in the world, our efforts are designed to help all mankind. No shipments are labeled: 'For Latter-day Saints only.'"
In other words, there is no need to label, group, compare or define those who are suffering in any way. Before the Safeco Field event, President Nelson met with local civic, religious and business leaders who have joined together to deal with homelessness in the Northwest. President Nelson described the nonjudgmental, compassion-filled approach to community-driven ministry, saying, “We find great satisfaction in partnering with such agencies as the Red Cross, Catholic Charities, and Islamic Relief for much of our humanitarian work. We care deeply for our friends and neighbors the world over and are eager to build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation.”14 comments on this story
As a world religious leader, President Nelson is urging all to transcend traditional ways of understanding the struggling, whether in the aftermath of hurricanes in the Philippines or the Carolinas, fires in the West or opioid-ravaged communities in the East. His message to the religious and nonreligious alike is that when it comes to uniting to serve the suffering, oneness need not be sameness.
Avoiding labels, suspending judgment and looking at one another not as groups or categories to be defined but as fellow travelers through life is the first step. Then, with compassion, empathy and charity, we can act on the impulses of our better angels and maximize our opportunities to positively impact the people we encounter every day.