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True compassion comes one-on-one

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday April 22, 1997

This past weekend, national news was dominated by pictures and stories from floods and fires, a media two-fer, in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

I paid special attention to the Grand Forks story because I have visited there many times over the years. I have always viewed Grand Forks as an embodiment of Americana. It has farms and factories. It has a serious newspaper and a good university that includes a world-class center for aviation sciences. But most important, Grand Forks, like the rest of the Northern Great Plains, has rugged people to match its harsh climate; it has an optimistic, can-do spirit that reflects the outlook of the Norwegian and Swedish immigrants who settled the region and greatly influenced its culture.

As I was watching pictures of young high school and college kids coming in on buses from around the region to help the folks in Grand Forks fill sandbags and build levees, I began to realize why the Grand Forks story is so compelling: It is a story of people helping people. Not people “caring.” Not a support group. Not people hand-wringing about the problems of others. Not people giving money to some organization to muster support for people in need. Not people lobbying a legislature to appropriate one person’s earnings to give to another person in need. This was a simple story of people helping people — of individuals giving their energy and their time, their most precious and irreplaceable asset, to help other individuals who were facing the loss of their home and, in some cases, their livelihood.

The Grand Forks story is noteworthy because we live in a time when our media are filled with stories about “mercy and compassion delivery systems.” Instead of reports of people helping people, our attention is focused on how to reform a government welfare “program” and which bureaucracy should administer it (federal, state or local governments; churches; non-profits, or, as in Texas, even for-profit business organizations), a changing health care scene dominated by big government and big HMOs, and United Way campaigns that “encourage” working people to hand over hard-earned money to big organizations run by community insiders who then decide what causes in the community are “worthy”. On the left, we have a presidential summit next week that will extol the virtues of “communitarian” approaches to “caring” and the need for villages (not parents) to raise children. On the right, we have national centers for effective compassion, even though joining the term “national” with “effective compassion” in the same title creates an oxymoron — just as “compassionate observer” is a contradiction in terms.

Compassion, as Marvin Olasky reminded us in his widely acclaimed 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion , is not about the emotion of “caring,” “sensitivity,” “sympathy,” or other such “feeling” words now typically used as synonyms. Compassion is about “doing.” Compassion, says Olasky, is, at its root, about “personal involvement with the needy, suffering with them, not just giving to them.” It is, as the 1834 edition of Webster’s dictionary said, “suffering with another.” Compassion, in other words, is about one person personally involved in meeting the needs of another person.

That is why the story coming from Grand Forks is so compelling. It is a story of people doing things for others, suffering with others, giving up the comforts of life for a few days to fill sandbags to repel the water, cook food for the hungry, give shelter to the homeless. And therein lies a hint for solving the “welfare” problem in America. It will be solved by people helping people, not by professionals in big bureaucracies fighting for budgets and managing programs. Mercy and compassion are contact sports that require personal involvement. We can’t just write a check. We can’t just leave it to the professionals.

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