Cell phones aren’t supposed to make you cry. Mine does, though, with pretty astonishing frequency.
I was watching a video posted online the other day — a dad, dancing to a song he loved, making his infant son laugh. The video moved through time as the dad and son both aged, and ended with the son dancing to the same song with his own son, while FaceTiming his elderly dad. Tears were streaming down my face at the end. This was an advertisement.
It’s not just ads that can switch on the ol’ waterworks. The news knows how to access all my emotions with the feel-good, viral videos that they snatch from the internet: “Watch this old man holding babies in the NICU!” “This cop gave his own boots to a homeless man!” “This pizza delivery guy drove four hours to take a dying man his favorite pizza!” Most of the time I’m a mess before they’re halfway through.
Even charities, trying to achieve their own good goals, appeal to the emotions pretty hard in their letters, emails, and photos. These people are experts at pulling at my heartstrings.
And often, they’re successful with me (at least, the charities are). Being generous feels good when the pamphlet shows a destitute-looking family. I imagine them poor by no fault of their own, victims of circumstance. A description of an innocent child who has been abused makes me feel sad and angry, and giving a donation can assuage my feelings of powerlessness.
Obviously, though, things aren’t always so straightforward. When we consider the people and communities that challenge us, or that fly in the face of what we believe to be true, being generous — with our money, but also with our judgment — is just plain hard.
Think of the sibling who always pushes our buttons; the drug-addicted pregnant woman; the criminal; the refugee seeking asylum — how often do we allow ourselves to be generous enough even to open our hearts to listen to them or consider their stories? It’s easier to stick with whatever narrative we’ve already told ourselves about them: it’s their fault, they’ve sinned, they’re less worthy.
But God asks something else of us. God asks us to allow our hearts to be moved with compassion and tenderness by the complicated, flawed people around us.
Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in LA (talk about complicated), puts it this way: “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” He is speaking of the poor, but God asks this compassion of us with everyone we meet, no matter how messy their life is or how difficult our relationship with them is.
When we encounter those who are difficult to love, whether because of their personality, their circumstance, their crime, or our own opinions, we must pause and ask ourselves: “What is the most generous interpretation of this person’s story?”
Perhaps in this way we can get a taste of God’s endless, generous mercy toward us, and we can recognize the face of God in our brothers and sisters more easily.