I answer the Q: What does “compassion without borders” mean to me?

dlBelow is an essay that won a competition in celebration of a visit to my university by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.  It was printed in a booklet, and gifted to His Holiness.  We had been challenged to answer (in 500 words or less) this question: “What does ‘compassion-without-borders’ mean to you?”  Below is my working definition, compiled in the middle of a glorious African night.  Please comment with your thoughts.

I remember the first time I stood before people in my home country to ask them to help orphans in another country 10,000 miles away.  (I was in the United States, talking about children living with AIDS here in Uganda.)  Most of the people in the room responded with tears and generosity—a compassion without borders.  They cared about their fellow person, no matter where she or he may be.

I also remember another person in the same room.   She raised her hand and asked a question I have heard many times since.  And no matter how often I hear it, it always takes my breath.

She began simply: “I have a question.”

“Of course, what is it?”  I replied.

“With so many needy children here,” she said, “so many suffering people in America—why should I give money to children all the way over there?”

I swallowed.

Then I looked directly into her eyes, and with my own compassion I quietly said, “There is absolutely no logical reason that you should.”

There was silence then.

I continued, “Compassion is not informed by that sort of logic.  This is precisely what makes it so special, so beautiful, and so powerful.  Compassion is not something we offer to each other from a place of compulsion.”

I paused again, looking for the words, then:  “Compassion springs forth from the raw beauty of the human spirit.  If we were forced to offer it, it would become something far different, something much less magnificent.  But when it is freely offered from one spirit to another—and graciously accepted in the same way—I believe it gives life its very meaning.”

Not many days later, I found myself in the space “way over there [here]” (as it had been put to me)—seated in the very humble office of the Postmaster in my small village in Uganda.  I was telling him about my colleagues’ and my work with orphans living with AIDS.

He sat back in his chair, and sincerely asked, “Why are you wasting time and money on these kids who are going to die anyway?”

Again, my very breath was taken from me.

But only for a moment.

Again, I looked my fellow person in the eye.

This time I asked my own questions: “What if it were you?  What if someone could help you—though you were ‘dying anyway’?  Would their help still be a waste?”

He didn’t reply.

So what is my definition of “Compassion without borders”?  Too often, there are political and geographical borders, there are life-and-death borders, and there are borders of logic and meaning-making.

But let us be modern-day explorers who see not the confines of these borders or the horizon, nor of budget and politics, nor of personal logic and public opinion.

But let us be people of courage and purpose, people who see the precious liberty of discovery.

The power of purpose.

And the transformational and beautiful face…

of compassion…

without borders.

12 Responses to I answer the Q: What does “compassion without borders” mean to me?

  1. March 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Your answer takes my breath and helps me to form my own answer when I am asked similar questions that we express compassion, not under compulsion, but out of hearts that long to touch other Image Bearers who share the glory of the Creator.

    • March 4, 2012 at 4:58 am

      Image Bearers indeed. May we never forget those who have cared for us when there was no logical reason they should.

      • susan heitz
        March 4, 2012 at 1:53 pm

        I just read a quote recently by Elie Wiesel (holocaust survivor and author) it fits perfectly with your compassion definition.
        “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of angiush, and with some measure of triumph.” Elie Wiesel

        • Britney
          July 12, 2015 at 7:49 am

          I looked at this and this was the answer to our youth lesson today. Love this.

  2. Tiki Inacay
    March 3, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Nathaniel,

    Your response brought tears to my eyes. I believe that God blesses each heart with the passion to fulfill the purpose of our own individual calling. That purpose may not seem reasonable to anyone, but God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts. Sometimes God allows the human heart the great honor of falling in love with a cause that gushes forth in an unimaginable compassion for another, much like the children of Aid Child. They were not born of your loins, but born of your heart. Your love for these children is “compassion without borders.” These children are loved from the deepest places of your heart. This is reflective of the irrational love of God toward us.

    There is a poem written on a wall in Calcutta India as a tribute to Mother Teresa. This woman gave her life to give to the poor. There is truly no defense for such a great love than when “a man would lay down his life for his friends.” The poem reads,

    People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

    If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

    If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

    If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

    What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

    If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

    The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

    Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

    In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

    Compassion without borders is “doing it anyway”, because love gives unconditionally for the sake of itself.

  3. Suzy
    March 4, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Another so tender rendering of truth and real meaning. I cherish your powerful statements on compassion wihout boarders coupled with the statement I hvae quoted you saying for years…which is “active compassion”. Thank you again for giving me
    much to contemplete and absorb.

  4. April 3, 2012 at 7:01 am

    Somehow I missed your essay the first time you posted a link to it on Facebook. I am so glad you posted again! I know it was because of the honor of being selected for presentation to the Dalai Lama and I offer you my deep congratulations. But I am glad on a personal level because today I read it and it blessed me. Thank You, God, for giving Nathaniel the ability to put Your thoughts into words, for Nathaniel’s obedience, and for giving me the opportunity to read them this morning. “Your thoughts are not our thoughts” but sometimes, once in a while, You allow us a glimpse into Your thinking. It is incomprehensible, but You love us enough to allow us to partner with You in Your acts of love to the least of our brethren. That is awesome, in the deepest sense of the word! And thank you, Tiki, for posting the poem. What a great start to this day!

    • April 3, 2012 at 5:05 pm

      Thank you! I am blessed to know that you see the Divine in these words. What a wonderful thought. Bless you.

  5. Tom Slack
    April 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Nathaniel thank you for your brilliant insight and forsight in dealilng with compassion and human kindness while at the same time overcoming apathy and attempting to broach courageously the task of addressing a world with huge problems in all its nations. Whole civilizations on the verge of chaotic war infighting and poverty and hunger and disease…… Yet you keep focussed and trudging on to address a serious inequality in Uganda for the sake of the defenseless, and helpless and cast out children, to give them hope and safety and their lives purpose and happiness . I think you Nathaniel are definetly leaving a mark on the conscious of mankind and indelible withness that says “See you can make a difference even against the staggering odds and beaurocracies and so many obstacles you have had to overcome one at a time” . Compassion pays back big time, you are a much strong man now and an example to many others. And you at the same time are developing the character heros are made of. Congratulations, I appreciate you essay and know that you will not be soon forgotten, and though you undoubtedly aren’t motivated by what is in all this for you, like noteriety and fame or wealth, but are doig it because you KNOW it is the right thing to do. You are most likely lead by a selfless desire to help the hopeless because you love them that much. Yes I am sure that the rewards will continue to come to you as you blossom into a man who can be respected and look up to for all the right reasons. God bless you. This whole things seems familiar to developing God’s holy righteous character which carries an eternal wieght of Glory. THANK YOU FOR ALL YOU ARE DOING.

  6. Tom Slack
    April 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Tanks Nathaniel I wopnder at times as I iomagine what you have done with your life if I am not just a little envious of your accomplishments and maybe I know I won’t be doing the things youare doing but your example does encourage me to do all the good for ALL others I can even if that means being on my knees praying for God’s blessing for all those children whose lifes you have forever changed. And of course for you too and all your family.

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Nathaniel is CEO of AidChild.org. He holds a Master's Degree in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University where he was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, and winner of the 2010 Harvard HDP Marshal Award. He also holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego where he was the Dammeyer Fellow in Global Education Leadership, and a Cordes Fellow at Opportunity Collaboration. Nathaniel is author of "We Are Not Mahogany: Three stories about the male African life." Prior to his move to Uganda in 2000, Nathaniel was Deputy Director of the Office of the Governor of Arizona, and Director of Education at Leadership, Inc.

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