Recently, something quite extraordinary happened in my office that really affected me deeply, and prompted me to sit down and carefully examine the role compassion and empathy plays in our lives. Because I regularly meet with people who are incarcerated in Texas prisons, I have previously read and thought quite a lot about these subjects. However, I’ve never written anything about compassion or empathy. I hope this blog post presents a few insights into my perspective on the importance these character traits are for all of us.
Please allow me to briefly describe the incident in my office that served as the catalyst for me to write this post. A few months back, I hired an interested and qualified candidate to fill an opening for a clerical position in my office. Aside from the usual clerical duties of filing, faxing, emailing, etc., one specific duty this job entailed was to open up the mail each day, log it in to our firm’s software, and then read client letters addressed to me. After reading the letters, she was to sort the letters into categories and help me draft responses to the routine letters, while leaving the more difficult ones for me to work on.
I knew there might be a problem when she told her co-workers that she didn’t want to deal with certain letters because she didn’t “like” the offender (based on the title of the crime that led to incarceration). After working for a couple of months, she came to me and announced that she was giving her two weeks notice, as she had taken a position in a medical office. It didn’t bother me that she was leaving, but I was curious to understand what reasons were behind her decision. I assumed it was something simple, like higher pay, or a work location closer to her home. What she said shocked me, and I doubt I’ll forget it for a long time.
She told me she just did not like helping our clients. I was puzzled at her reply because she is a friendly, pleasant, and professional person to be around, and I knew that she had previously confided in her colleagues that she was a devout Christian. Instead of arguing with her when she told me that she was so against spending her working hours helping prisoners, I politely told her that I believed helping people was the very best part of the job, and sometimes people in prison might need help more than just about everyone else.
After she left my office, I became a bit sad, because I’m sure many, many people feel exactly the same way as my (now former) employee feels. Admittedly, my employee’s claim of religious piety may have caused me to become more disappointed than I would have otherwise been, but even if she had been an atheist or an agnostic, I would still have wondered how she could be so blind.
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of every religious or moral tradition throughout the world, calling upon all humans to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. In order to understand what compassion really is, it is worth acknowledging what it is not. Compassion is not pity. In order to have compassion, you do not need to feel sorry for everybody else, though sometimes it is perfectly reasonable to feel some degree of sympathy at the hardships prisoners often endure. Instead of pity, however, compassion involves feeling the suffering of others, or standing in their shoes in order to reflect upon their world. Compassion involves being human and recognizing that all of us have the potential to fail and make poor choices. True compassion also requires us to ask ourselves what we all can do to help someone learn from their mistakes and become a better person.
They say that incarceration serves two broad purposes; punishment and rehabilitation. A person who lacks compassion likely forgets that both of the purposes of incarceration are worthy of our respect and attention. Unfortunately, it is obvious that our society seems to remain largely fixated on the punishment of crime, rather than on the rehabilitation of offenders.
Someone once said that you can tell an awful lot about a society by how it treats the least fortunate of its members. Based on my observations, and the attitude of my recently departed former employee, we have a long, long way to go.