“His cassock was worn and faded, his hair tumbled like a school-boy’s, his hands stained and hardened by toil; but the glow of health was in his face, the buoyancy of youth in his manner; while his ringing laugh, his ready sympathy, and his inspiring magnetism told of one who in any sphere might do a noble work, and who in that which he has chosen is doing the noblest of all works. This was Father Damien.”
– Charles Warren Stoddard, who visited Kalawao in 1884
Father Damien, an icon of compassion and influence
Some of the most powerful and influential people are often, also, the most compassionate. Compassion and influence are closely associated with one another as the definition of both words involve the desire to effect a positive outcome – to alleviate suffering or to make a situation or circumstance different than it currently is.
In 1972, when I was a child, my family visited the (then still isolated) island of Moloka’i and the settlement of Father Damien’s leper colony Kalaupapa. Even at such a young age, the atmosphere of the place made an impression on me, one that has stayed with me the last (almost) half century.
Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) was feared and reviled in the late 1800s in those developing Pacific islands. It rendered its victims deformed and highly contagious. They were exiled to the island, never to be rejoined with their families (unless accompanied by a kokua, a helper), to die in a community with others who were disease stricken.
In 1873, thirty three year old Father Damien became the next caretaker of the community, as several other religious workers had done before him. But he was different. His extraordinary level of compassion, and desire to lead by example, changed Kalaupapa from a place to die to a place to live, in community.
He overcame fear – both his own, and that of his patients who feared the isolation and death they were sure awaited them on the island. His ability to influence with compassion helped them move past their fears and live with joy and a vision for their future. He established a school, hospital, and housing, cared for them with his own hands, and ate with them during meals. Despite strong advice and counsel from other clerics against becoming so deeply involved, he chose to live with joy rather than fear, even though it eventually led to him contracting the disease and his eventual death from it.
“His ability to influence with compassion helped them move past their fears and live with joy and a vision for their future.”
Father Damien (nee Jozef De Veuster) died in 1889, as he had lived… fearless and with joy. His unlimited compassion for his patients and neighbors had great influence on the quality of life in Kalaupapa. Although quarantined, the islanders who called it home learned to live rather than wait to die. They participated in church services, community development, and education.
Just last month I found a movie from 1999 on Amazon Prime called Molokai (sic). It brought back to mind my experience in visiting that magically beautiful place. It is a poignant telling of Father Damien’s story. I highly recommend it. While watching, I recalled having to take a “prop job” aircraft from Maui and my grandmother being very nervous because it was such a small plane. I remember walking into the community buildings of Kalaupapa and, even as a child, feeling a sense of peace rather than tragedy. Although I had no real practical understanding of what leprosy was, the overall impression of the old buildings was not one of sickness or fear. All these years later, I still find that interesting. Leprosy has always been such a dreaded disease and its victims are historically quarantined at best, banished at worst. Recall the scenes in Ben Hur of his sister and mother banished to the cave with other lepers.
Compassion builds trust
As the decades of my life have passed on, I’ve come to reflect on the influence compassionate people have on those around them. It’s an amazing thing to watch, really. Think about it, when someone shows you compassion and kindness, you are much more open to considering change or new ideas.
Being shown compassion builds a sense of trust. When we believe someone has our best interest in mind, understands us, and earnestly wants to help us make it better… We drop our guard and let them, and their ideas, in for consideration.
Father Damien used his extraordinary compassion to influence both the sick people he cared for at Kalaupapa, and also the other priests and nuns with whom he worked in the Diocese of Hawai’i.
Compassionate and giving people are typically well-liked and appreciated and therefore have great influence. They are far more pleasant to be around than someone who is operating from a point of fear and scarcity.
“Forgive easily, let go of negative emotions sincerely and permanently, move forward with empathy.”
In both personal and business matters, the advantage goes to the person who is more trusted and makes us feel safe. Everyone likes being around nice people. Confident kindness engenders the willingness to be creative, to take calculated risks, and to feel relaxed and optimistic. Compassion lowers the stress response and opens the door to deeper, more meaningful, relationships.
The question then becomes, “Are you the compassionate sort?”
If the answer is yes, congratulations. Always keep in mind, however, that your compassion – to be most beneficial to you and those around you – must be tempered with the ability to disallow others from taking advantage of you. It can be a precarious balance, but once achieved, is a powerful combination for good.
If the answer is no, but you would like to learn how to become that way, here are some suggestions to help you.
Compassion is the habit of acknowledging the weaknesses and troubles of others with a selfless desire to help them overcome. See yourself in the shortcomings of others. Acknowledge that we are all humans who hurt, love, wish, suffer, laugh, and cry. We are all in this life together, we simply experience it in separate bodies. We have so much in common. All of us, worldwide – regardless of language, religion, culture – desire the best for ourselves and the ones we love, and avoid as mush as possible physical and emotional hurt.
Generosity… with yourself and others
Compassion is a daily habit we choose to practice. Be generous with yourself in this way also. We’re our worst critics, but we need compassion and kindness as much as the next person. Charity begins at home… be kind to yourself, forgive yourself, help yourself be better today than you were yesterday. When you become familiar with how compassion feels, you will far more easily be able to gift it to those around you. Rather than criticizing and finding fault, and approaching situations with anger or fear, choose rather to see yourself in others’ shoes. Acknowledge they will benefit far greater from your kindness and understanding than your indifference or berating. Forgive easily, let go of negative emotions sincerely and permanently, move forward with empathy.
Father Damien will forever be remembered not only for his selflessness in caring for the gravely ill, but also for the strength he showed in his commitment to help them live meaningful lives and experience dignified deaths.
He is but one notable teacher on the topic of compassion and influence. Consider others in your life that exhibit these same characteristics. Talk to them, learn from them, and watch the magnificent changes you experience in your own self when you build compassion within.