Don’t look away

We can never make a difference if we don’t first notice.

We are probably deluged with more images of pain than any previous generation; they are beamed into our homes nightly on the evening news.

It is easy to get compassion fatigue and tempting to dismiss these spectacles from our minds, telling ourselves that there is nothing we personally can do and that this misery has nothing to do with us.”
– Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Over chips and salsa at Buena Vista, my sister Sandy and I would listen as Kelly updated us on her friend Diana. We’d listen to the decline in her health, the hopelessness of a cure, the hospital visits and cancer treatments and sad conversations.

And we’d all commit to pray. For Diana. For Kelly.

Until one day, I found out Sandy had now met Diana herself.

And after another lunch, Sandy and Kelly suggested I should, too.

It’s one thing to pray from afar for a stranger dying of cancer.
But it’s another to walk into their living room.

On my first visit, Sandy and Diana were sitting outside on Diana’s porch when I arrived. Diana was alert, talked some, let us pray with her. I was blessed to finally meet her in person, to put a face to the name. And also blessed to meet her caregiver, Mary, a godly woman who was loving Diana hard in body and soul.

On the second visit, things were different. Vastly.

Diana was in bed, in pain, and non-communicative except for groans. I watched as Sandy stroked Diana’s hair, as Mary lifted her for yet another bathroom visit. I prayed silently and aloud for healing, for peace, for something good to show up in this room. And he did. The Lord was present.

But it was hard for me to be present.

Looking suffering eye to eye is overwhelming; hearing pain wail louder and harder is suffocating. After an hour and a half, I’d had enough. With a guilty conscience, I hugged everyone goodbye.

And walked away.

The third visit, things had changed again. Diana was now on heavier medication, and was sleeping soundly. I visited with Mary, Sandy, Kelly, and family who had flown in from Texas.

It was easier to sit with the pain when the pain was quieter.

The fourth and final visit, just a few days later, was seeing Diana in her casket. Her face showed no signs of struggle, her body no longer troubled, her spirit now freed.

In the temporal timeline, my visits to Diana were a tiny blip, hardly recognizable. Three home visits and one funeral home.

But in the eternal timeline, she’s no longer just a name I prayed for. She’s a face impressed in my memory, a soul in my heart, and a living lesson on my jagged journey to learn compassion.

While the noisy suffering in the world makes me want to look away—scares about Ebola, terror from ISIS, wars and poverty and disasters—I need more courage to look at it anyway. Notice it. Recognize it. And respond to it as I’m able.

Even if just one at a time.

Especially one at a time.

Look at one face.
Grasp one hand.
Hold one conversation.

One is enough.

Diana was one. One made a difference in me.


* * *

“We learned that orphans are easier to ignore before you know their names. They are easier to ignore before you see their faces. It is easier to pretend they’re not real before you hold them in your arms. But once you do, everything changes.”
– David Platt, Radical

Have you seen the NFL’s PSA for “NO MORE” looking away from domestic violence? It’s beautiful.

What one person in your path is suffering this week? How can you recognize their pain? Please share in the comments.


For Step 11 in my Year of Compassion, November’s challenge is RECOGNITION. This month I look forward to meeting James Owens, Auburn University’s first African-American football player (1969), and hearing his story.



29 thoughts on “Don’t look away

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    That’s a very brave thing, to share that experience.

    The expression “compassion fatigue” is one that I think has to be used with caution – it originally gained currency in the 50s, and was applied to people who worked professionally in the worst of places. It was a hardening that was necessary for self=preservation, and to allow the individual to continue to work. You can see only so many wounds in triage before you quickly bypass those who are hurting but not dying, without much thought or emotion.

    You save the emotion for the dying, and you lock that down. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. (I wrote that instinctively, and realized that it’s a perfect example, that flippancy.)

    It’s kind of like the old term, battle fatigue. I’ve heard “corporate warriors” use it, and the temptation is to tell them that they are unlikely to witness – or cause – dismemberment in the conference room. But one doesn’t say those things.

    That said, in not looking away one must also prepare to walk down a road that has allows no turning back. You WILL be changed, if you go far enough.

    When faced with a zero-sum world, you’ll realize that your effort and expenditure on hobbies and luxuries mean that there’s less available to feed a child, dig a well, or save a kidnapped family pet from the dog-meat trade.

    I treat myself to a five-star resort, and someone else dies. Not theoretically. Really.

    So I’ve got to take a very careful balance of everything I do…”is this really necessary?” is asked far more than I ever say “wow, that looks like fun!”

    I still allow myself small luxuries, to help myself keep a positive attitude and the sense of fun that I hope is a gift to those I try to help. But in seeing those who have nothing, or whose balance sheet is in the red and getting worse…I can do with a lot less.

    It wasn’t an easy transition, but it was the cost of the unflinching look, and I’d do it again.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Good stuff, Andrew. It makes me think of how we get “worn out” by our first-world problems: I had to wait in the drive-thru line for 10 minutes!; my ice maker isn’t working fast enough; I can’t find the exact shade of red that I want to wear today. Woe is me.

      I agree we do still need to allow ourselves small luxuries, but for most of us, the definition of “small” is super-sized. 🙁

      That’s one reason I need to keep hanging out with the poor and the sick who have life-and-death struggles–not just so I can help them, but so they can help me too. They remind me that we’re all in this together, not “them” vs “us”. We’re all us.

  2. June

    Challenging words, Lisa and Andrew. (His comments always shock me into silence. I’ve yet to be brave enough to click over and read his blog) It is often easy to feel compassion, but to translate it to action takes something else entirely. And then there are some with all the action and no feeling. Whatever the case, I believe that true compassion comes from God and asking Him to change our hearts and the hearts of others is the best answer. Always a pleasure here, Lisa – thank you for sharing this. You are a brave heart.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I agree that Andrew does issue some sobering words; I usually have to sit with them too. I appreciate his willingness to go the extra mile with his comments.

      You bring up a good point, June: there is also the possibility of taking action but not having compassion. I’ve seen that too (and I’m sure I’ve done that too). “True compassion comes from God” – yes, yes.

  3. Barbara H.

    I had not heard the term compassion fatigue. But I can hardly watch TV news any more due to the weight of all the bad. I think I would feel much the way you did on your first visit. I’m thinking, too, of being on the other side of the fence – if I am not feeling well I tend to wan to be alone, and I think it would be hard to actually let people in. I would hate to be in a position where I needed help for basics like going to the restroom. I have thought about that a lot with my m-i-l here, but remind myself I have to trust God for that time if it comes, and His grace will be sufficient.

    “We’re all us.” I like that.

    1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

      I am in that place of often needing help in the restroom, and showering, and dressing. It’s not fun,.


      It does provide others with the chance to “face fear, and face grace”, and press past their conventional reticence to do what’s necessary.

      Sometimes reaching out is not where you want to reach, but where it’s needed. And those of who need the help…by being gracious and accepting we are also doing God’s work.

      1. LisaNotes Post author

        “Face fear and face grace” – we can look at the second part and think it’s easy, but that’s difficult too, especially for people who are used to doling out grace. My husband hurt his back last weekend, and he’s had such a tough time allowing me to help him.

        But we all need to be able to receive help as much as give it. It’s humbling on both ends.

    2. LisaNotes Post author

      “…but remind myself I have to trust God for that time if it comes, and His grace will be sufficient.”

      Same here, Barbara. I worry too often that I’ll get Alzheimer’s like my mom and all that entails. But if I do, I do; grace will be there for all.

  4. Katie

    Facing fear is a hard thing to do. You did it with love and compassion. One person one moment at a time. I sat with my grandmother. On weekends only due to job and where I lived. Not easy to do when it is a loved one, to someone that I don’t know would be even harder.

    You inspire me friend,

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      It is definitely different when it’s someone we don’t know; easier in some ways, harder in other ways. I’m glad you were able to sit with your grandmother. Those sittings change us, yes? Thanks for your words here, Katie.

  5. Joanne Viola

    Lisa, you have expressed this so beautifully. Compassion & prayer looks so different when we connect face to face. Somehow touching the person, in the midst of their suffering, makes it so hard to shut them out or stop praying or to forget. May we be willing to walk into situations that demand courage for it is those very situations which bring strength to others & change us forever. Blessings!

  6. TC Avey

    I was reading a book a while back by Francis Chan and he said God impressed upon him to see the children in the s ex trade industry as his own kids. He said that when he did that it broke his heart. He couldn’t sleep. If that was his kid who was being held captive in that industry he would do everything in his power to save them.

    I think more of us need to have our hearts broken over something or someone. There’s plenty of things out there to do it. But God won’t overwhelm us with all of them. He will placed burdens on each of us and we are to do with them as He instructs: Sometimes it’s through prayer or financial support and other times it’s more hands on.

    Thanks for sharing this, Lisa. It’s this mindset that has kept me motivated to blog and write about topics people don’t always want to confront. It’s good to have reminders about why I do it. God bless.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Ooh, that story by Francis Chan is tough. It’s one thing to think of “people”, then another to put faces on those people, but another altogether to imagine those as OUR people–sons and daughters and loved ones. What a powerful exercise.

      I have a little family in my life right now that keeps my heart broken. Their needs are overwhelming to me, so I keep having to think “one thing, one thing” at a time. Today I bought some clothes for the baby. That’s good for today.

      You’re right that God doesn’t want us to live overwhelmed. Good words, TC. Thank you.

  7. Anita Ojeda

    Although I know the majority of my students come from homes with horrible backgrounds, I often shy away from being the listening ear that recognizes their terrors and their pain. May God help me this week to embrace the opportunities for confidences and to see the opportunities as a means of sharing God’s love.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      “…recognize their terrors…” How difficult it must be to stay open to that day in and day out, Anita. I’m sure you are listening far more than you’re giving yourself credit for here. I read your blog this morning so I know.

      May God bless you with strength, wisdom, and courage in this ministry of loving on those who have so many obstacles. I’m sure you are a blessing.

  8. Deb Wolf

    Lisa, Thank you for taking the time to challenge us with this beautiful reminder. You’re right. It is easier to pray from a distance. But presence makes a difference. It touches and unites hearts. This blessed me! God’s blessings to you!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      “But presence makes a difference.”

      Yes, you’ve summed it up perfectly, Deb. Just show up–that’s what I’ve been telling myself all year. When we show up, God shows up too! Thank you for this.

  9. Ceil

    Hi Lisa! Wow, what an experience. And so many different levels of communicating too, in pain, in peace and in quiet. What a roller coaster for you.
    I’m so glad that you could see the goodness of the experience, and not dwell on the size of it. God calls us each to do some service for him and for others. The size or shape of it just doesn’t matter. Your willingness to go, and to freely wrestle with your feelings while praying is so inspiring.
    But then again, you usually are.
    Best of blessings brave one,

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      You’re so encouraging, Ceil. Thank you.

      One of my favorite things about this experience was getting to watch how the other ladies would love on Diana. I have so much to learn from them. God is so patient with me.

  10. floyd

    Powerful post, Lisa. And a great lesson in action. It’s easy to try to walk inside someone else’s shoes until your standing right next to them in yours.

    I have one close to home; please pray for Tawny, my nephew’s wife who is thirty three, they have five kids, and she was diagnosed last night with a brain tumor. We’re praying it’s benign, but even if it is it still needs to be removed and is in the central part of the brain.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that about Tawny. I am praying for her now, that the tumor will be benign, that the surgery will be successful with no ill-effects. I’m sure this is a scary time for all the family; praying for you all also. Do keep me posted what they find out when you’re able.

  11. Sarah Donegan

    Oh how right you are. We are so bombarded with bad, it takes the edge off. You were brave to go be with her and comfort her. We should all be more actually and physically compassionate. Praying from afar is great, but being Jesus’ hands and feet is important too!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      But so often I’d rather just pray from afar. 🙁 It’s so much easier and more comfortable. But yes, you’re right that if we’re going to be Jesus’ hands and feet, we’ve got to go there. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah.

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