The realisation that I could easily be in anyone else’s position, and they could be in mine, is a profound one. A different set of circumstances, as different family background, new experiences, and the whole course of life and framework for actions can be radically different. My wife has a powerful story about a time she was working for a Christian project in Amsterdam, including amongst the prostitutes, when she recognised the shared humanity between herself and those she was living and working around. Compassion sees past the labels we put on people to the place where we could easily see ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It recognises a shared humanity.
We also have a parable where a respectable man is praying alongside another (the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18). The first man raises his eyes to heaven and prays, “Thank you that I am not like the other man, that I’m respectable and I give away a tenth of my income”. The second cannot bring himself to look up to heaven, and simply mutters to god “Have mercy on me, a sinner”. The parable goes on to say that it is the second man, the ‘unrespectable’ one who goes home in good standing with God.
The error the first man made was to think himself above the second. It is right to thank God for the good things we may have been given, but the comparison he made showed what he really thought of himself and of the other man. The compassionate person gets alongside those who are suffering, unrespectable, or simply those who are ‘not like us’. They attempt to understand and alleviate the situation without the element of superiority, seeing the person rather than the situation or label. After all, ‘they’ could so easily have been ‘us’ if not for a different set of circumstances.