Silence, a Break, and Friendship: The Conditions for Compassion

I spent last weekend leading a retreat for Lakeshore Baptist Church out of Oakland, California. The event was held deep in the redwoods just inland from Half Moon Bay on the California coast.  Like the city of Oakland itself, Lakeshore is a beautifully diverse church and the age of participants were everywhere from fourteen to seventy-eight.   The retreat theme was: “Doing Good: Church, Neighbor, Community.”  In the sessions I led I tried to explore the connection between our own need and the needs of others, focusing particularly on how our own personal suffering, if we’re willing to face it and hold it, can become a source of compassion for others.  I relied on two Samaritan stories (the woman at the well, and the good Samaritan) and a quote from Thornton Wilder: “Without your wounds where would your power be?”

On the last night of the retreat we engaged in a prayer exercise I learned from my friend Frank Rogers and had the group recall a moment in their lives where they experienced unconditional love.  The group shared these experiences and we explored what it’s like to receive love as well as the disposition of those who helped us feel loved.  I then asked the group, “What do you need in order to be a compassionate person in the world?”  There were many ideas and responses but after awhile I noticed the adults had taken over the conversation so I said, “I have a question for the young people among us.  Soon you will be part of the adult world.  You’ll have jobs, marriages, families.  As you observe the adult world–the world of your parents, your teachers, coaches, neighbors, people you work with…what do you feel that adults need in order to be more compassionate?”

One young woman responded immediately: “Silence.  The adults need more silence.  They’re too stressed.”  A young man who graduated from high school last year spoke next: “I’ve been in the adult world for the past year.  I’m working two jobs, trying to pay bills. Yesterday was the first day off I’ve had in 6 months.  How can you care about people, about anything, when you never get a break?”  Another young woman spoke up, “Everybody’s stressed.  Everybody is doing too much.  I don’t even have time for my friends.  Most adults I know don’t have friends.  You can’t care for strangers when you don’t have time to care for your friends.”

Later that night I had dinner with Erica, a woman in her late 20’s who was doing childcare at the event.  Erica has a degree in graphic design and a Master of Divinity from the Graduate Theological Union.  Work, however, is in short supply in Oakland, and Erica has been juggling four jobs this past year just to make ends meet.  I spoke with her about the grief that I sensed in the teenagers as they transition out of school and into adulthood.  She nodded her head knowingly and said,  “I work seven days a week.  My workday ends around eleven at night and begins at seven in the morning.  Many of my friends are doing the same thing…trying to pay off college loans and cover rent.  It’s hard.  You just feel scattered and tired.”  We talked for awhile and I could sense her depletion.  “What do you think is God’s yearning for you?” I asked. She responded immediately, “A break.  Some kind of break.”

Later I spoke with Alex, an athletic, bright young man who plans to join the military at the end of the year.  “The work world is like a machine and we’re just the parts, the components.  There’s no time for play anymore. Work is your life.”  He was talking of what the Bible refers to as “the principalities and powers,” the forces that are greater then any one individual, the inertia of a culture focused on greed and efficiency.  The adults I met felt like casualties of this system, but what will stay with me is the resigned grief in the young people, the sorrow that their lives will be a kind of never-ending servitude without friendship, without rest, without silence–the three elements they identify as necessary in order to have a heart that cares.


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