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Reading and Compassion

In the last post, I discussed the ministry of beautiful children singing endearing songs to raise money for children's ministries in several African countries. I would like to think that readers who had never heard of this ministry before were moved, and perhaps even thought of giving to or volunteering for African Children's Choir or a similar program. As good as that is, I can't help thinking that we shouldn't congratulate ourselves too much for allowing a very compelling ministry to move us to such natural compassion. It is very easy to support adorable little children, especially when a professional ministry presents their cause so eloquently.

As Charlotte Bronte reminds us in the novel Jane Eyre, beautiful, endearing people are not the norm in this suffering world. The title character of this story, like the members of African Children's Choir, is an orphan whose parents have died tragically of a disease common in her day among the poor. But unlike the choir members, Jane, considered quite homely, does not inspire compassion, at least from any of the other characters. As a child, Jane lives in the care of her cold, self-pitying aunt, who considers her “a tiresome, ill-conditioned child, who always looked as if she were watching everybody, and scheming plots underhand.” Her spoiled cousin terrorizes Jane with harassment and physical abuse. One night, when the household nurse and maid believe she is asleep, Jane overhears this chilling conversation:

Bessie . . . sighed and said, “Poor Miss Jane is to be pitied, too, Abbot.”

“Yes,” responded Abbot; “if she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that.”

“Not a great deal, to be sure,” agreed Bessie: “at any rate, a beauty like Miss Georgiana would be more moving in the same condition.” *

Of course, we Christians know better than to talk like this. Despite the fairy tales, we know that not all damsels in distress are fair maidens. Like Bessie, we know that those without obvious beauty are “to be pitied, too.” But do we secretly compare the Janes to the Georgianas in our lives?

This is one issue in which the literary arts in particular can be more effective at inspiring compassion, especially when written in the first person. Instead of looking at Jane, in all her wretchedness, we look with her. We hear her perspective of what it is like to be unattractive, without the distraction of our own judgments of her appearance. While I enjoyed the BBC miniseries adaptation of Jane Eyre, this aspect of the story was completely lost in the portrayal of young Jane by the adorable Georgie Henley. When a movie adaptation calls for a homely character, either she will not be cast as such, or the rare appearance of a less-than-gorgeous actor will in itself be a distraction.

Hopefully those of us who call Jesus our Lord are too mature to be like Abbot, consciously allowing physical beauty to be a factor in our willingness to help others. But what about other qualities, such as gratitude, trust, and cheerfulness, that make people pleasant company? Are we turned off to serving or giving to others because they don't match our idealized image of the noble poor? Because a pregnant teenager doesn't wear a long blue cloak? Because a homeless man can't solve a Rubik's Cube? Because, instead of crying mournfully or singing stoically about tomorrow, hurting children whine, throw tantrums, or act out?

These are the people about whom Jesus said, “ . . .whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40) Jesus makes no mention of whether or not the “least of these” would act anything like he does. Isaiah tells us that Jesus, “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him/nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” How can we expect anything more of those who need our compassion?

One of the main reasons suffering people are not always beautiful is that suffering is not beautiful. Think about the times when you were seriously ill. Were you looking your most attractive? Were you pleasant to be around? Perhaps you are one of those people blessed with graciousness under any circumstance, but most of us slip at least once in a while. And the longer we've been in pain, the more likely we are to slip.

As for Jane, the reader will probably guess that her troublesome watchfulness had something to do with having to grow up in a hostile environment. I have heard something similar (minus the intense moral judgment) said about a real child living in a chaotic home. Growing up, some people learned to be selfish and mistrustful in order to minimize the poverty and pain they experience. In Jane Eyre, Bronte teaches us that changing these behaviors does not happen quickly.

Hopefully, the more we read first-hand accounts of suffering, whether fictional or true, the more we will be able to focus more on others' pain than on what we think of their appearance or behavior. The next step, of course, is to do something helpful.

*I pulled this excerpt from an e-text downloaded from Project Gutenberg, which, by the way, is an excellent source of classic literature available for free download. Check out You can volunteer virtually in helping create these books at the Distributed Proofreaders website,