Compassion in small doses may be miracle enough

Do lions, the notoriously ruthless kings of the jungle, possess a compassionate streak for the weak and the injured? You wouldn’t think so, but according to an Associated Press article about an event that occurred about 350 miles southwest of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia a few years ago, there may be more to lion behavior than we knew.
The article reported that a 12-year-old girl had been abducted by seven men whose intent was to force her to marry one of them. Police Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo told reporters that when the police eventually found the girl she had been very severely beaten and was lying injured on the ground near the edge of a forest, in the company of three lions. The lions had apparently chased off the girls’ captors, then stood guard over her for half the day. When rescuers came, the lions slid quietly back into the forest, leaving the girl, as Sgt. Wedajo phrased it, “like a gift.”
Various writers and investigators have doubted the likelihood of the story. They have argued that such behavior would be nothing short of miraculous, as the lions would surely not have willingly guarded and then relinquished such a tempting meal. Yet Stuart Williams, a wildlife expert with the rural development ministry in Ethiopia, suggested another perspective. He said that the whimpering of the injured young girl might have been interpreted by the lions as a mewing sound from a lion cub. Perhaps the lions cared for the girl because her utter helplessness reminded them of the helplessness of their own young, and triggered a deep-seated instinct for compassionate protection.
It’s fascinating to speculate about compassion triggers, because we humans have them, too. Perhaps we are wired with them, because when catastrophic events occur such as famines, tornadoes, hurricanes or tsunamis, an outpouring of help and concern from the wider human community follows. When a smaller local tragedy occurs, the community surrounding the family or individual who is in trouble often mobilizes in astonishing ways to offer aid and support.
Yet even the most well-meaning among us can grow weary when our compassion triggers are over-taxed. Decades ago it was first noted that compassion fatigue occurs among those whose careers ask them to face disease, hardship or trauma on a continuous basis. Doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, psychologists and welfare works were all prone to it and some demonstrated symptoms of anxiety and hopelessness as a result.
But how about us? Are we as compassionate, as responsive, as caring about the needs of those who are hurting or in trouble as we might be? Some analysts say no. They argue that we all now have a degree of compassion fatigue by virtue of the endless exposure we receive to news coverage of tragedy and suffering. They claim we all feel a little anxious, a bit uncertain of how to improve things for those in need, powerless to make a difference.
Yes, the widespread needs of the human community may leave us feeling sadly useless and impotent, but we aren’t. Undoubtedly in our very midst there is someone who could use our compassion and our protection. We don’t have to fix all the world’s problems. Helping just one or two in need could be a great gift. It could be miracle enough.

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