"Men always talk about the most important things to perfect strangers. In the perfect stranger we perceive man himself; the image of a God is not disguised by resemblances to an uncle or doubts of wisdom of a mustache." GK Chesterton
I invite you to share your stories here, to tell about moments of compassion that made a difference to you or others, whether from a fellow human being, an animal, or even an insight received from a moment in nature.

Monday, May 25, 2009

My moment with a chaplain

I was a hospice volunteer in a hospital. I was sitting with a patient, who as the nurses had observed, was clinging to life long past the point anyone would have predicted. But he was dying, and his death was a struggle. His relatives lived in a distant state and were not able to be with him. As I sat with him, he opened his eyes to look at me more than once. He tried to speak, but he could not. I explained to him that I was a volunteer and would sit with him, if it was okay. He tried to speak again, but I could not understand what he was saying. Usually I can tell if my presence is a comfort to a patient. This time I wasn’t sure. It occurred to me that perhaps a stranger sitting with him in these final hours of his life agitated this patient more than comforted him. I left the room for a while, to ask the charge nurse if the chaplain was available. Soon he came to find me, and we agreed to meet in the chapel at a designated time. I told him my concerns. How, I asked him, can I know if I am a comfort to this patient, or if I am upsetting him by my presence? After all, I am a private person myself. Would I want a stranger with me at such a time? The chaplain was a gentle, thoughtful person. He told me that in most cases he felt sure that the presence of a caring person, even that of a stranger, was preferable to a patient to being left alone in those hours. He thought for a moment and said that if the patient was unable to speak, maybe I could ask the patient to squeeze my hand if it was okay for me to continue sitting with him or her. He then went on to say that from his experience with patients he was sure that my presence was most likely a comfort, that I was doing a good thing. He then asked if he could pray for me, and he did so. Later, it struck me that this chaplain was a complete stranger to me, and he had comforted me in a moment of uncertainty in a position where I strongly desired to be a help to others, and not present an additional burden to them. I had been able to talk about my deepest concerns, because of his caring presence. I was glad I was not alone with the weight of my concerns, and I appreciated that this kind stranger was there to offer support. I have never been sure about what that particular patient wanted, but the chaplain’s advice, on both the practical and spiritual levels, helped me to continue my work in a spirit of service and care to other patients.


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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Warning: this is not a story of compassion, but it is a story that moves me to encourage and celebrate compassionate acts.

Guran Avium. It is a name I can’t forget. It is the name of a five year old boy who was shot in the back in Darfur in October 2007, as he attempted to flee from a band of troops and militiamen who dragged several men praying from a mosque and killed them. The Sudanese government denied the acts were carried out by their troops. A tribal elder said Guran Avium was the youngest of a group of children who tried to flee, and who were shot by the troops. For days, I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of a five year old boy shot in the back as he tried to run away. “We can’t live in this kind of world,” I thought. And yet, this is the kind of world we live in. I vowed not to forget the boy, but it hardly seemed enough. What would it matter? I kept thinking about how we have the world we create, in terms of human society. We are creating the world every day, by our acts, one act at a time, and if we create systems of injustice and violence, that will be our world, and if we create systems of justice and compassion, that will be our world. I felt helpless when I read the story of this boy, but I decided I am not helpless; we are not helpless to start making a difference, however small and seemingly insignificant. One act at a time: as individuals and as communities, we have that potential, to begin creating the world we want.


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Monday, May 18, 2009

Beyond Duty

The following link tells the story of a nurse who cared for a grieving family after they lost a  family member in the ICU.



Sunday, May 10, 2009

Loren Eiseley’s Star Thrower

It is Eiseley’s best known essay, his story about the starfish thrower on the beach at Costabel. The star thrower picked up starfish who had been flung onto the beach by the surf, and threw them back into the water, so that they might have a chance to live. Eiseley, an anthropologist and naturalist, called the hand stretched out in pity to another species “the subtle cleft in nature before which biological thinking had faltered.” For, he said, “From Darwin’s tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death, had arisen, incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life…there looms, inexplicably, in nature, something above the role men give her.”

Several years ago, I rescued a drowning dragonfly from the Mississippi river and set it on a nearby log. A couple of minutes later, I felt something on my shoulder. A dragonfly had alighted there, and what's more, it appeared to be gazing at me when I turned my head towards it. I saw no other dragonflies in the area, and the one I had rescued was gone from the log where I had placed it. It occurred to me that this was the same dragonfly, and that it knew I had rescued it. I told myself that this was impossible; it was just coincidence. Yet over the years whenever I remembered the incident, I was struck by the strange feeling I'd had when I turned to see the dragonfly on my shoulder. Although I have tried to convince myself that the dragonfly couldn't have known, some inner sense, or perhaps nonsense, or perhaps obstinacy, speaks of something else. Maybe nature is more generous with intelligence than we have dared to imagine, and other forms of life are more subtle and mysterious than we know.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why stranger compassion?

In my own experiences, and as a hospice volunteer, I learned the importance of the role of the stranger to a person undergoing illness, grief, and perhaps life's most important journey. There is something about the empathy of a stranger that allows a person to speak freely of their hopes and fears, failures and dreams, which they may feel unable to share with family members. The compassionate stranger offers a nonjudgmental presence, and, having no history with the patient, there is a freedom to share the deepest parts of one's self. I like the Benedictine description of how to listen: "Listen with the ear of your heart."