I recently came across an interesting story that got me thinking…
A mysterious letter
A small family, known as the Harts, living in an average suburban community, received an unusual letter from an unknown distant relative. The letter stated that within the next several weeks they were planning to visit and were appreciative (nice way of saying expectant) of their willingness to provide accommodations. There was no contact information, only a black and white photograph with the grainy picture of an old man. You can only imagine their apprehension, confusion and curiousity.
The Harts were a young couple, married less than ten years. They both worked to make sure the bills were covered yet enjoyed a relatively comfortable but busy life. The couple had two children and were expecting their third. The couple’s marriage was healthy, though their busy and crowded lives put them into a place where they felt somewhat unfulfilled… you know that sense where you feel like you may be missing out on what is supposed to be? They had that. However, they managed their family, despite the challenges. The letter was received the old fashion way, in the mailbox. Upon opening it up and reading its contents there was an overwhelming sense of bad timing. The last thing this family needed right now was a visitor, who was showing up unannounced, staying for an indefinite amount of time and intruding in what was already a crowded life.
The letter was odd to say the least. Questions began to cascade the longer they thought about the visit. How were they related? Was this claim even true? Is this person dangerous? What are we exposing ourselves to, especially our children? Did this person want something? Why were they visiting in the first place? Do we have to accept this “request”? The questions and levels of anxiety continued to grow the closer the impending visit drew.
The guest arrives
The story moves rather rapidly towards the day that the visitor finally arrives and continues in great detail, describing the initial encounter. The sense of awkwardness, trepidation and some humor can be sensed as the story teller unpacks the encounter. The story is well written. The visitor turned out to be an elderly gentleman who had lost his spouse several years earlier. The connection, if I remember right, was through a distant cousin, perhaps a second or third. Therefore, the relationship was not a strong connection, but a very loose affiliation. The primary reason this elderly gentleman wanted to visit this family was, in his own words, “he was told to.” The gentlemen ended up staying for several weeks, and the awkwardness quickly faded, and a genuine love began to grow between this young busy family and this elderly unscheduled man. The mystery of the visit coupled with the ensuing relationship encompasses the final chapters of the story. The story has a warmth to it that makes it a compelling read. However, what intrigued me was not the details of the story but the effect that this visit had on this family.
Compassion and empathy
I could not help but run the parallels that this unexpected visit from an unknown person had with how compassion and empathy visit our lives. Many of us lead somewhat normal lives, that if observed by an outsider would look quite familiar to their own lives. We have our routines, our responsibilities, our rest and our recreation. Additionally, we tend to be busy with limited margin and capacity for more. We tend to live with a sense of guilt or regret that we are not maximizing the things that are important… a constant theme at many of our funerals. Compassion and empathy are often unannounced. They tend to come at the most inconvenient times and cause our minds to flood with all kinds of very legitimate and seemingly mature questions and responses. My own experiences with compassion and empathy are usually received in much the same way the Harts received their letter. I don’t tend to react well. I see it as an intrusion, rarely do I think about how the story ends, only why it’s even a story in the first place.
We are in a season that seems to heighten our awareness for the need of compassion and empathy. We are in great need of a very heavy dose of compassion and empathy. I am astonished at how much of our rhetoric, news, feeds, messaging, time, energy and focus is on that which seems to divide and categorize us and leaving very little room for the “still small voice” of compassion and empathy. My selfishness has a different cadence then my selflessness, and I tend to default to the former. One interesting thing I noted in the Harts story was how this elder relative of theirs affected the pace and perspective of this family. A precious outcome of the story was that when he left, mission accomplished, they were a different family. Their responsibilities didn’t change, just their perspective.
Therefore, as we move into a different season, my prayer for myself is that I don’t see compassion and empathy as a temporary visitor, an experience, an event or an activity, but rather I see them as dear friends and part of the family, always having a seat at the table and always having a voice that is heard.
Stephan N. Tchividjian is the president and founder of the National Christian Foundation South Florida. Visit southflorida.ncfgiving.com to learn more.
Read more articles by Stephan Tchividjian at: https://www.goodnewsfl.org/author/stephan-tchividjian/