"One of the stories was Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find.' After they read it, we come to the Grandmother's transformation of character ('she would of been a good Woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life'). My students speak of this woman's change and seem to use these terms interchangeably: sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Like any teacher stalling until the bell rings, I ask these felons to define their terms.
" 'Well, sympathy,' one begins, 'is when your homie's mom dies and you go up to him and say, "Spensa sorry to hear 'bout your moms." '
"Just as quickly, there is a volunteer to define empathy.
" 'Yeah, well, empathy is when your homie's mom dies and you say, "Spensa, 'bout your moms. Sabes qué, my moms died six months ago. I feel ya, dog." '
" 'Excellent,' I say. 'Now, what's compassion?'
"The class collectively squirms and stares at their state-issue boots.
" 'Come on now,' I say, 'Compassion what's it mean?'
"Their silence is quite sustained, like visitors entering for the first time some sacred, mysterious temple.
"Finally, an old-timer, down twenty-five years, tentatively raises his finger. I call on him.
" 'Well, now,' he says, all eyes on him, shaking his head, 'Compassion that's sumthin' altogether different.'
"He ponders what he'll say next.
" 'Cause,' he adds humbly, 'That's what Jesus did. I mean, Compassion . . . IS . . God.'
"God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we're asked to do is to be in the world who God is. Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus' soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was. I heard someone say once, 'Just assume the answer to every question is compassion.'
"Jesus pulled this off. Compassion is no fleeting occasional emotion rising to the surface like eros or anger. It's full-throttled. Scripture scholars connect the word to the entrails, to the bowels, from the deepest part of the person. This was how Jesus was moved, from the entirety of his being. He was 'moved with pity' when he saw folks who seemed like 'sheep without a shepherd.' He had room for everybody in his compassion."