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Refugee and Asylum Seeker march Melbourne, Australia

I believe deeply in the innate dignity of all. Innate is a beautiful word; it means of one’s essence – of one’s core – one’s deepest self. Each one of us has a worth, a dignity, a uniqueness that is not earned – it is simply gift. Linked to this belief in the innate dignity of each one of us logically flows my love of story; our story – our stories. Story is our heart articulation of our journey. Journey has its ups and downs, its twists and turns; it is rarely straight and uncomplicated – but within its mystery there is much beauty. Like you I have had the privilege of sharing thousands of story sharing times – times when we have gathered in two or three or thousands and broken open story. Those times are special.

We come to each story and story teller as a guest. We come slowly, respectfully, with open hearts and open minds – to encounter the gift of the other and of ourselves. This guest-ness is HOW we come to the encounter. The other senses it. In that sacred space we choose to be deeply present and our presence – more than anything else – says to the other, “You are special, you are beautiful, you are gift!” The other intuits this in our presence and if we choose to do all of this from an inner space of freedom, free from ego, we mysteriously experience this same sense of our own gifted-ness and beauty.

When we choose to weave guest-ness and presence through our lives our hearts grow, they expand, our eyes grow more clear and our ears are unencumbered. With guest-ness and presence an intimate part of who we are and how we walk our day, we grow in compassion. Compassion, from Latin means “to suffer with” and is the cousin of empathy. The choice to enter a space as guest and to choose in that space to be as deeply present as we can changes us. As these two choices become a part of us – our heart set and our mindset – we find ourselves labelling less and less. We find that we focus more on the person and their story than on the media driven narrative or our ego wrapped layers.

I have had the privilege of working with homeless men and women, with refugees and asylum seekers and with young people and families who are struggling. I can clearly remember the first time I truly engaged with homeless people. Armed with my preconceived ideas of the homeless being “smelly, lazy, violent, a threat” and more, my very first encounter was a huge smile. Our van – Eddie’s Van – pulled in to the side of the street and immediately we were surrounded by smiling faces, offering to help us with tables and containers and to set up our coffee and snacks. Many of these homeless people came to be dear friends of mine and when, some ten years later, I was moving for some time from Brisbane to Melbourne in Australia, the send off that they gave to me was truly special.

I am often not proud to be an Australian. I believe we – a nation of immigrants – treat refugees and asylum seekers – very poorly. One time I was working in Melbourne and I was making short Social Justice films. We had a drop-in centre for Asylum Seekers at Richmond. The young man who coordinated the centre was called Liam. We made a short film about the centre and in that film interviewed Liam. In the course of the interview I asked Liam, “If you could have a politician visit you for a short time – what would you say to them?” Liam surprised me by his answer, “Nothing!” “I would not say anything – but I would invite them to sit down with the asylum seekers and listen to their stories!”

No one risks life and limb and travels across thousands of miles of sea simply for the smell of salt air. No asylum seeker seeks safe harbour in Australia or elsewhere – leaving behind family, culture and kin on a whim. They set out on a journey to ‘freedom’ because of fear, violence, poverty, cruelty and more. But the eyes to ‘see this’ and the ‘ears’ to hear story free of ego don’t just happen. Too often we are unconsciously trapped in our ego driven narratives and world views. Hence the importance – the constant importance for ALL of us to constantly work on self awareness. When we are self aware in a truly open way (as distinct from a pseudo awareness where we are actually just listening to our own bias and prejudice) and when we choose to come as guest and be present then our hearts respond with a depth of compassion that often surprises us.

How often have we heard of someone with a particular bias / prejudice and they ‘experience’ relationship with the very people or group they are against and they appear to change. This experiencing of relationship is of course the various forms of breaking open story. I have worked with young people who over several months of sitting with the homeless have gone from “they are lazy bludgers” to “Jim is a great bloke but life has dealt him some almost impossible cards – you know he was abused when he was 8!” – and a hundred variations of that narrative.

In compassion your eyes soften and you begin to see beyond labels. Your labels are brought into question and what was ‘fact’ becomes opinion and then in time – uninformed opinion and then even prejudice. In compassion your mind quietens the incessant ego noise of labelling and judgement and you hear the voice whisper of pain and story, fear and loss, difference and gift that was always there but you just could not hear it. In compassion you disarm and the ‘I – IT’ modality gives way to an openness to hear and share story – I – THOU. In compassion you don’t have to compete or win. In compassion you are able to sit with and feel with and feel for the pain and loss of the other – but do so in such a way that their ‘crap detector’ does not go off – for you are authentic, you are genuine, you truly are brother or sister with and beside them on life’s journey.

In compassion you go into a space of sitting with the other in their feeling space. I have never liked the phrase, “Walk in the shoes of your brother for a mile!” I do not believe we can walk in another’s shoes – no one can KNOW another’s experience – but, and I am sure you will shake heads at this, you can aspire to wear their socks! By ‘aspire to wear their socks’ is to say that while we can’t walk in their shoes we can – as far as humanly possible be there with them; not to solve, not to fix – but just to be there and to be there in such a way that they feel empowered to claim their lives back. We walk beside them as they walk this journey (for we are walking our own journey at the same time), they know we are with them and for them – we truly are brothers and sisters together.

In compassion you cry with, are silent with, are helpless with – are in the space beside them. Where we can, our compassion will lead to action with. In the Christian Scriptures there is a passage in the letter of James where he says, “If one of the brothers or sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, ‘I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty’, without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that?” James 2: 16

Terry and Steve, two of our friends on the street with Dr Julia Kelly

There are times when the other (and ourselves) does not need us to do anything. Just to be in the present with presence is all that is needed. But at other times compassion calls us outward in solidarity, in advocacy or in action with and for the other who is hurting. We do this in such a way and from a space of inner freedom and deep respect so that it is not ‘charity’. In this instance I am referring to ‘charity’ as some form of pity. Our compassion goes way beyond any form of pity and comes from such a heart space that the other knows we are with them as far as is humanly possible and in a mysterious way it invites the other to be with us too. This call outward is risky. The call of compassion may mean risking our own reputation, our safety and security, our comfort – it will cost us.

One of the litmus tests of true compassion is that the other is called into an empowered space of claiming control over their circumstance as far as it is possible. While the circumstances surrounding them may not have changed, their inner heart disposition and thinking about their circumstance will have, and left them more at peace. Compassion is a truly reciprocal relationship – of giving and taking – of pilgrims together on life’s journey.

True compassion may at times lead us into a powerless place. Those places of powerlessness are never easy and often ask of us a surrender, a trust and a presence that can leave us empty. But even in this place – if we come (often to self in this instance) as guest and be present – we will discover an ever deeper place of one with – of brother and sister beside, of one heart – on the same heart journey.

I would like to leave you with the words of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton;

“Do not depend on the hope of the results when you are doing the sort of work you have taken on. Essentially, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no results at all, if not results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

And there too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets more real. In the end it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

Thomas Merton


How truly self-aware am I or am I just listening to my own preconceived prejudice?

Who are the ‘others’ in my life that I label in such a way that it prevents me from hearing their story?

What action of compassion can I make today?

2 thoughts on “Compassion”

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