In the critically acclaimed film About Schmidt, the character played by Jack Nicholson has his apathy about the world's problems broken down by opening his eyes to suffering. The power of the film is in Nicholson's performance -- he could be any of us, stuck in our routine, failing to find meaning in life. His redemption is that he finally finds compassion.
Wesley Stafford is on a mission to help average Americans do just the same.
"The word compassion comes from the Latin word compati," Stafford explains. "The first part, com, translates to 'with,' while pati means 'to suffer.' Thus, compassion literally means 'to suffer with.' "
Stafford is the president of Compassion International, and he was in Spokane last week seeking converts to his cause.
"The important thing to remember in this hurting world," Stafford intones, "is that we simply be compassionate. It doesn't mean you go solve all the problems. It doesn't mean you fix everything.
"Being truly compassionate doesn't just ask that you take pain away," he continues, "but it asks that you feel that same pain, that you are weak with the weak, that you are vulnerable with those who are vulnerable."
Compassion International is a Christian evangelical organization dedicated to helping the world's poorest children. The organization works with churches in 22 countries, matching sponsors with poor children. Nearly 475,000 children receive food, shelter, medicine and education through this program. The Wall Street Journal rated Compassion International among the Top 10 trustworthiest charities in the United States.
Born and raised as the son of missionaries in Africa's Ivory Coast, Stafford went on to earn degrees from four colleges, then became president of Campassion International. Stafford spoke to the congregation at Whitworth Presbyterian Church in Spokane on Sunday. His quest: battling apathy.
"I've always loved what Edmund Burke said," Stafford reflects. "He said, 'All that's necessary for evil to prevail in the world is for good people to do nothing.' In my experience, there are two main reasons we see good people doing nothing. One is because they don't know what to do. The other is because they don't know who to trust."
Indeed, Americans are not only pressed to donate money for a myriad of causes that may or may not be legitimate -- we are also, as a nation, dealing with an identity that is both compassionate and domineering.
"After September 11, we discovered the enormous compassionate capacity of Americans," Stafford says. "People just got in their cars and headed for New York. People lined up and waited for hours to donate blood. They had to close off Ground Zero just to keep the good will out."
Yet some wonder, for instance, how paying for the food and medicine of a child in, say, Haiti, makes any sense while we support armed movements that often force children into poverty.
Stafford must be careful in how he navigates that fine line, but he is clear in his response: Compassion is not conditional. We must, he insists, "challenge our leaders to act uprightly and with justice."
Though Compassion International's backbone is Christian, Stafford says their message spreads beyond religion. Stafford preaches of a compassion that is not rooted in political trends or forgotten in hard economic times. He seeks to instill a sense of compassion that, as in the Latin definition, challenges us to feel what the suffering feel, and thus push us to action.
In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson's character discovers that authentic compassion can wake us up from our suburban slumber. When we change our minds about the world, the world changes, too.
"Changed nations or changed communities sometimes change people," Stafford concludes. "But changed people always change nations and communities."
You can learn more about Compassion International or sponsor a child by visiting www.compassion.com or by calling (800) 336-7676.