BY MATIAS SUR
Note: Did you know Bill Withers died in March of this year? (Sigh…) One of the most celebrated R&B/Soul singer-songwriters of the 1970s, he was known for his baritone voice and unforgettable hits such as “Ain’t No Sunshine” (1971), “Lean On Me” (1972), and “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” (1974). Right now, go on YouTube and listen to “Lean On Me.” It will help you get through this article.
I’ve seen it on TV ads, tweets, and Instagram posts. Society has come to a clear consensus as we approach January 2021:
2020 has been a horrendous year.
If 2020 were a room, we’d all be scrambling for the exit.
All of us have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in one way or another. Each of us has our own difficulties to add to that. One might hope that these events would have allowed us to come together, to be each other’s shoulder to lean on. However, even a global pandemic has become politicized, generating fierce controversy over lockdowns, social distancing, and mask-wearing. In this year’s darkest moments, even coming together has been difficult.
In the midst of this pandemic caused by COVID-19, an “other pandemic” (OP) has arisen. I don’t have a name for it, because it wasn’t created by a virus like COVID-19, which is identifiable and monitorable and for which we now even have a vaccine that seems to be effective.
No, instead, I can only look at the OP’s probable origin and symptoms. It started out like a virus, probably from the combination of tensions, stresses, and difficulties of a tumultuous year caused by rampant medical, political, and social unrest.
None of us were prepared for it. No one warned us. No one told us it would be this bad. It snuck up on us in the same way COVID-19 did in January. Because we lacked the proper defenses, this year’s events have managed to infect us—myself included—with deep-rooted pain. The OP latched onto our hearts; the parasite sucked out love, joy, and hope. In fact, I should not use the past tense—it continues to do so.
This virus has three identifiable symptoms.
First: individual pain. Pain from the headaches caused by constant scrolling through Instagram and Twitter, reading pain-inducing headline after headline. Pain, that visceral pain in one’s stomach from watching the news and hearing some politician’s disagreeable statement, leading to an irrevocable expression of disgust. “Not again,” we say. Yet, each day seems to bring a continuation of the previous day’s issues and concerns.
Second: social pain. It spreads from person to person through arguments at the dinner table, comments on social media, and even—God forbid—through physical violence. The symptoms of this OP are big, dark blue bruises on the inside of our hearts, as well as fractured relationships with friends, colleagues, and even family members.
Third: resentment. Once social pain arises, then the symptom of resentment quickly follows. With it comes resentment for the world, resentment toward each other, resentment toward hope, and a stinging distrust toward one’s neighbors. Loneliness and alienation arise, leading to a malaise of the soul, discomfort, fear, and uncertainty for what may happen next.
We are hurting.
But there is a cure. We have a vaccine available to us. We do not need to wait for governing bodies or institutions to authorize it, nor do we have to wait for pharmaceutical companies to produce it. Each of our hearts is a shareholder in this “company.” Only we can authorize the cure. We have to open ourselves up.
The cure is compassion. In the words of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me,” “We all need somebody to lean on.”
Compassion comes from the Latin, cum passio, which means “to suffer with.” Compassion is not empathy, nor is it sympathy or pity. Although these may appear as interchangeable terms with similar definitions, each term has nuances that ultimately set these words apart.
Pity is “feeling bad.” It is the sadness one feels for hearing unfortunate news or seeing a person’s unfortunate state-of-being. However, that’s where the emotional response stops. There is an emotional and physical distance that separates individuals from feeling anything more than pity. For example, imagine this scenario: In New York City, a rich person looks down at the street from the top of their 10th story high-rise apartment and sees crowds of homeless people. The person feels bad for their poverty and mourns the unfortunate situation they find themselves in, but she does not suffer with them.
Empathy is “to walk in the other person’s shoes.” It is a rational understanding of what another individual suffers, which is tied to having had a similar experience in the past. In other words, one can recall a similar state of suffering in one’s past, which then gives her “emotional knowledge” about someone else’s similar situation. Nonetheless, “similar” is the key word that distinguishes empathy from compassion. Because of the similarity in experiences, empathy denotes one’s ability to suffer like, but not enough to suffer with.
Sympathy, which comes from sympatheia—“social solidarity”—is the state of feeling what the other feels but with none of the bonding qualities between the two parties as in empathy. The classical Stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius, believed that the world was one collective, cohesive whole in which all things were connected. In other words, nature bonds human beings together, and a person’s sympathy is affinity based on the natural bonds that exist between human beings. In this case, the bonds between two people are founded on physical principles established by nature. However, these are not emotive, personal bonds. In the example of two people, there is a relation, but there is no relationship. It is a connection built on duty, but not on love.
Whereas the Stoic principle of sympathy is one’s “social solidarity” with others’ suffering because of one’s duty toward fellow human beings, compassion involves a willful action that risks it all for another person at the expense of one’s very self. It is, in essence, the way of the Good Samaritan. 
After being asked “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus tells the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is about an unnamed man who is beaten up and left half-dead by robbers on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. As he lies on the ground, a Jewish priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan pass along the way. The first two walk along the other side of the road to avoid “contamination” from the uncleanliness of the wounded man. The Samaritan, however, “moved with compassion at the sight,” cures the man’s wounds and takes him to an inn where he can heal (Lk 10: 29-37).
Compassion leads the Samaritan to cure the man’s wounds. And compassion is what will cure us from the OP. Pity, empathy, and sympathy are not enough to cut the snares of resentment that have surrounded our hearts. In fact, these only act as short-term pain killers for the languorous anguish we’re feeling. But, to fully overcome our own pain and that of others, we need to be compassionate both to our neighbors and to people we would rather avoid (sometimes the two are one and the same!).
During Jesus’s time, Samaritans were considered “enemies” of the Jewish people, not their neighbors. That is the hidden irony of the parable. To the Jewish people, the priest and the Levite were the “exemplary” figures who would be expected to do charitable deeds. In contrast, by making the Samaritan the “good guy” of the parable, Christ uses an unpopular figure to teach his disciples that anyone can and should be compassionate by showing mercy toward others in their community, whether enemy or friend.
Pope Francis, in his latest encyclical Fratelli tutti, says that imitating the Good Samaritan’s compassion will heal us from the division affecting our world:
“Any other decision would make us either one of the robbers or one of those who walked by without showing compassion for the sufferings of the man on the roadside. The parable shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbors, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good. At the same time, it warns us about the attitude of those who think only of themselves and fail to shoulder the inevitable responsibilities of life as it is.”(Fratelli tutti, 67)
The way of compassion is not only noticing and calling attention to the poor, the hungry, the wounded, the injured, the forgotten, the ones facing persecution and discrimination; it is clothing the poor, feeding the hungry, bandaging the wounded, remembering the forgotten, and saving the persecuted and defending the discriminated. Compassion is taking on the pain of another and carrying it in one’s heart, in the same way Christ carried the Cross for all of us, taking on the sins we’ve committed and the pain we’ve all felt. It’s easy to point out the injustices occurring in the world, but it’s quite another thing to do something about them.
In other words, Jesus practices what He preaches. He not only tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, instructing us to treat our neighbors with mercy. He also risks it all for us at the expense of His own life. As He made his way up to Calvary with the heavy weight of the Cross on His shoulders, Jesus took on all of humanity’s sin and suffering by suffering with us. His sacrifice was the fruit of deep compassion.
God could have given us the punishment we deserved for our sins: spiritual death and eternal punishment in hell. Instead, out of His unconditional love, He chose to save us. God is, as Dante puts it, l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle—“the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Par. XXXIII, 145). He chose to become human. By becoming like us, God could then suffer with us. Rather than condemning us, God chose to be compassionate toward us, risking all at the expense of His own life.
Does that mean, then, that we too have to physically die for others? Not necessarily. But compassion requires us to take on the burden and suffering of another as if they were our own. Mother Teresa, for example, did not merely empathize with, sympathize with, or pity the poor. She was compassionate, so much so that she became poor herself, just like the people she helped. She was physically present with them.
In this tumultuous year, it should be more evident than ever that each one of us has a neighbor in need. As the Good Samaritan shows, even those whom we count as strangers and enemies are our neighbors. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, indeed to “Love [our] enemies, and pray for those who persecute [us]” (Matt. 5:44).
After such a horrendous year, the greatest gift I can give this Christmas season is, as Bill Withers encouraged us, to turn to the person next to me and risk it all, offering myself as a source of love and compassion. In a nutshell, someone whom my neighbor can lean on.
“Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna needSomebody to lean on.”
Compassion will be the cure to the OP. We have a collective responsibility to become more compassionate toward each other, for the sake of the entire world. Each of us has the tools to heal, and only when we open our hearts toward each other are these tools revealed. With these tools, we can resolve the problem at hand. We can resolve to enter 2021 with compassionate hearts.
At the end of each year, it’s customary to make resolutions. Usually, however, the most popular resolutions tend to be “self-focused.” In a world of “self-help,” we rarely ask for or offer help. But that sort of independence, since it is devoid of love, isn’t going to bring about the change we need. What if, instead, we asked ourselves these questions as we embrace this upcoming year:
How can I be a better son? How can I be a better daughter? How can I be a better friend? How can I be a better neighbor? How can I be a better boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife? How can I be more charitable toward people with whom I don’t see eye-to-eye? In each of my relationships, how can I be more compassionate?
I hope that you and I—probably complete strangers—will be brave enough to ask ourselves these questions.
For now, I think we can both agree that 2020 has been a horrible year. But let’s start 2021 with compassion—not alone, sad, or forlorn, but together. Lean on me, and I’ll be your friend.
 All definitions of pity, empathy, sympathy, and compassion used in this article inspired by a talk given by Notre Dame professor John O’Callaghan. “McMahon Aquinas Lecture: How Christianity Made Mercy Compassionate.” 12 Nov. 2019. St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN.