In the Extreme

The experience of deep, life-altering sorrow can enable a person to develop a capability of providing solace to others who suffer emotional wounds of the same level. But that capability does not arise in everyone who goes through grief of similar magnitude. Whether the capacity to offer solace after experiencing one’s own anguish can be learned or is tied to one’s innate personality is not clear to me, but I tend to think the latter is more likely. While learning to be compassionate probably is possible, I suspect compassion is more easily developed—and comes more naturally—to people born with certain mental attributes. And those not born with those attributes (or who do not develop them in early infancy), while perhaps able to learn compassion, do not seem to be as comfortable with the trait.  Psychological literature probably is rife with arguments for and against my “gut feel” on the topic. To my knowledge, though, no one has been able to measure or demonstrate, with near-certainty, the original source of compassion. But I have witnessed people who seem moderately compassionate develop extraordinary compassion after they experience the wrenching pain of irrevocable loss. And I have seen people who seem unmoved by suffering in others, even after experiencing, themselves, horrendous loss. Perhaps there is no correlation; maybe it have been a matter of simple coincidence. But I think not. I believe there’s something innate, or that evolves very early in childhood, that corresponds to later compassion; or something like disregard for suffering.


This afternoon, a well-known (at least in certain circles) singer/songwriter will perform during a special concert in our church. I have been asked to introduce him and to explain how his performance came to be arranged. His presence today was not my doing; I had no part in making the arrangements. But I did see and hear him perform a few months ago and I was extremely impressed. I look forward to his performance today. I’m a tad nervous about introducing him, though, because it seems I will not be standing behind a lectern as usual, where I can keep notes hidden from the audience’s view. Instead, I will be in full view of the audience. My reliance on notes will be obvious. I wish I had the ability to ad lib or memorize my intended lines. It’s a bit late for either, though, so I will just have to stumble my way through it. With a bit of good fortune, I will not bungle it. As mi novia says, though, I am not expected to be a professional speaker; I am just some guy who’s responsible for making a few introductory comments. The audience will be there to see and hear him, not me. Unless I make serious missteps, no one will remember my words. But, still, I would like to give the performer a smooth, seamless, unobtrusive introduction. Before the concert, I will join the performer (Peter Mayer) and a few other people from church for brunch. Then, after his performance, a small group of church leaders will take him to dinner this evening. Assuming my introduction is not a massive, memorable, and embarrassing failure, dinner should be enjoyable. Time will tell, as always.


I was spurred to write about compassion this morning by happening upon something I wrote a year or so ago. I had mentioned, in my blog, a book entitled The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. Solace and compassion go hand in hand, in my mind. I knew very little about Ehrlich. The fact that she had been married to the late Neil Conan may have been nestled somewhere deep in my memory, but if so, it was buried quite deep. When I read that he had been her husband, I was surprised. And when I then read that Neil Conan earlier had been married to Liane Hansen, I was even more surprised. It occurred to me that literary and NPR “types” tend to have relatively tight circles. And that’s what I have to say about that.


The older I get, the more nervous and anxiety-ridden I get. I don’t know how to fix that.

~ Vince Gilligan ~


When Phaedra enters my study, she stops, looks up at me, and meows. I wish I understood what she is saying to me. Or maybe I don’t. She could be expressing unmitigated loathing for me. Well, some days the feeling is mutual; when I see her clawing a white leather sofa, I tend to get cranky in the extreme.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to In the Extreme

  1. Thanks, Debbie!

  2. Debbie says:

    Great singer/songwriter, given a distinguished introduction!

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