Compassion For Those Who Have None

Last week, Texas ended last meal requests for death row inmates. Texas decided to stop the practice not for the cost but because they “are moving away from the concept.” (source)

The change is spearheaded by Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire (D) who wrote in his letter to the head of the Department of Criminal Justice in Texas:

I have long been concerned and opposed to the practice of providing a last meal of choice to death row inmates just prior to their execution. It is extremely inappropriate to give a person sentenced to death such a privilege. One which the perpetrator did not provide to their victim. (source)

I grimaced at the last sentence because it is an oft used idea to defend all sorts of actions and decisions.

He cut me off so I flicked him off.
She never listened to me so why should I listen to her.
He was mean so I never spoke to him again.
She pushed so I pushed back.
He was rude so I cut him down to size.

Of course, these pale in comparison to why a person would be on death row, but we, on the outside, are supposed to be examples of how to live. Who better to show compassion to than the person who is unwilling or unable to show it themselves?

Who cares if you’re compassionate to a compassionate person? I’m not impressed that people love Jesus. He seems to be a very lovable man. He was usually kind, comfortable in his own skin, tolerant and loving of others. Sounds like an easy person to have compassion for.

I could sit around with Martin Luther King, Jr and Buddha all day. Feeling good. Caring about them.

But that’s not really the point of compassion.

Can we care for, love and show compassion to the people who make us weep for humanity? The rude drivers, the mean relatives, the death row inmates? What does it feel like to carry compassion for the people who do not reciprocate?

Well, it’s hard. It’s hard to love the unlovely. Often, we don’t get accolades or thank yous.

But I cannot let other people dictate who I am and who I want to be. And when another person’s actions alter my behavior, I am doing just that. I am giving them the power to decide how I will live my life. I want to be compassionate, caring, generous and kind, but when those values are dependent upon what other are doing or being or acting or have done, I am none of these characteristics. They are merely words and ideas that sounds very nice.

The truly kind are kind no matter who or what is happening.

Can I always be compassionate in the face of anything and everything? No. I hate people who hurt my family. I hate people who don’t know how to drive. I hate people who judge even while I stand in judgment of their judging. But when I let the hate become actions, I am living to merely bounce off other people’s behaviors.  I am not really living at all.

Is it even compassion when it’s easy? These values and virtues that many strive for and even more give lip service to, go beyond sitting around with like-minded friends. Maybe they are only felt and lived when they are upheld amidst hatred, cruelty and anger.

Compassion does not mean a person, who has done a horrible act, should not be punished. But perhaps, a prison library or a last meal is a reminder that there was another way to live. No matter what is done to us, we will continue to live in love. We are showing a man on death row, and in turn the whole world, that compassion has survived.

Alex Iwashyna

Alex Iwashyna went from a B.A. in philosophy to an M.D. to a SAHM, poet and writer by 30. She spends most of her writing time on, a humor blog (except when it's serious) about her husband fighting zombies, awkward attempts at friendship, and dancing like everyone is watching. She also has a soft spot for culture, politics, and rude Southern people who offend her Yankee sensibilities. She parents 2 elementary-aged children, 1 foster baby, 3 cats, and 1 puppy, who are all Southern but not rude. Yet.

27 thoughts to “Compassion For Those Who Have None”

  1. “No matter what is done to us, we will continue to live in love.”

    Perfectly stated. This was a truly great post. If you aren’t familiar with it already, and are interested in actively cultivating this belief in your life, I would recommend looking into lovingkindness (or Metta) meditation within the Buddhist tradition.

    Of late, I have felt that American Christianity has become woefully hypocritical. This post renews my faith in the faithful.

    1. I’ve heard of lovingkindness when I took a mindfulness course years ago but I don’t remember it well. Any websites or podcasts that you recommend for it? I’d love to explore it again.

      And thank you for your kind words. Sometimes I feel like I’m Christian without the Christian part. All I know is that I definitely love God a lot.

  2. This is an amazing post. Every Christian knows “turn the other cheek” but it’s hard to live that way without feeling like you’re being walked all over.

    I will admit that I’m often on the side of “Why should we?” where criminals are concerned. Especially those on death row, those that have taken other lives.

    But I will say that you give me something to think about. You make a very valid point and you state it so well. Thank you for that.

  3. AMEN. Forgive that you shall be forgiven. Love one another. I want everyone to forget the mean and stupid things I’ve done, don’t you? Of course there is the whole issue of killing people. I’m not getting into that here but most inmates only ask for something simple for their last meal.

  4. I guess I see not granting a last meal request to a death row inmate more as an inaction as opposed to an action *against* them. In other words, I don’t see it as being in the same vein as, “He cut me off, so I flicked him off,” and the other examples you provided.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the principle of showing compassion to those who don’t necessarily return it. It’s the right way to live and the right way to teach our children to live. I’m actually struggling with it right now with a family member who has, for all intents and purposes, had an emotional breakdown and is doing and saying horrible things to people I love. I’m hurt for those people and very, very angry with him, yet I still feel compassion for him because I know that he’s ill.

    But to grant a last meal request to a death row inmate? I guess I see that more as “special treatment” as opposed to “compassion.” And for that reason, I have to agree with Whitmire in saying they really don’t deserve it.

    But I do think you have a tremendously big heart.

    1. I’ve been thinking about your comment and I was wondering how would you show compassion to a death row inmate? I read the senator’s response as he didn’t do this so we won’t do that. He didn’t let me in to the merge lane so I won’t let him in might have been better to include as an example.

  5. Last meal, last cigarette (in the old firing squad days)…I don’t have a problem with it. I don’t even know that I see it as a privilege. After all, it’s the responsibility of the state to provide basic food & maintenance for the incarcerated. So maybe if the warden sees fit to provide a special last meal to a prisoner, it’s not out of respect or sympathy to the prisoner, but it’s out of honor (if one believes in such a thing), tradition (again, if one buys into it), or that long-forgotten notion of “it’s the cowboy way” or something like that.

    I don’t know…this is just one of those things that’s easier to feel than to express.

  6. I’ve always found the concept of a last meal strange and not in keeping with the death penalty. Here we are saying a person should be put to death for a crime, but we’re willing to serve them whatever food they want beforehand, as if it somehow takes away from the fact that the state is killing them? I absolutely love what you have to say about being compassionate even when the other person isn’t- that has huge ramifications for how we treat others in our daily life, and how we think about groups who are considered bad people, like criminals/prisoners.

  7. this is exactly why i teach.

    to love the loveable AND the unloveable.

    because if someone doesn’t love the unloveable? you end up with people on death row…or something.

  8. This is one of the reasons I love your blog so much. You have excellent humor posts and then you have posts like these that make me think. I have the same beliefs on this topic as you do. I have a huge internal struggle with a lot of people who call themselves Christians. I teach at a school that is based in Christian “values” (also the school specifically for Native Hawaiian youth) and sometimes the topics when we’re all together make me scream inside because we are not talking about a God of love. So, I keep my mouth shut because I need a paycheck. I’m digressing. I love this post. Thanks for the reminder that love and compassion still are powerful.

  9. I’m feeling vindictive today about a stupid slight. But, maybe the best thing, for my heart if not for the judgmental ass, is to find my compassion, to be kind in the face of rudeness. I want to get even, but that will do no good. And isn’t the goal to do good in this life?
    I shake my head at Texas. Last meals are about treating a fellow person with respect and dignity. I don’t believe in the death penalty, but if we must punish this way, may it be with dignity and respect.

  10. Amen…

    Another favorite quote, “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” – Ghandi

    I would like to see the death penalty abolished altogether.

  11. I agree with this whole post! The last meal is an act of compassion on the part of the state. That the state is treating them as they would wish to be treated. Personally, this idea is something I have been trying to teach my kids. It is not what the person did, but how you react. If someone is mean or even a horrible person, we should not see this behavior as an excuse to be mean and horrible, but strive to be better and to treat people better (even when it is hard). It is a hard subject, but it is something I want them to learn.

  12. Great post!
    “I’m not impressed that people love Jesus. He seems to be a very lovable man.” Right?
    “But I cannot let other people dictate who I am and who I want to be. And when another person’s actions alter my behavior, I am doing just that.” YES!

  13. Very good points.

    I heard a comment on TV last week that has haunted me every since. The woman was describing the difference between being found guilty in a criminal case and losing a civil case. To be found guilty in a criminal case the jury must be sure beyond a reasonable doubt, which she described as 80% or 90% sure.

    80% or 90%!!!! Are you kidding me? People are putting people to death based on an 80% or 90% rule? I sure hope she’s wrong.

  14. “People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
    If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
    If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
    If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
    The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
    Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
    For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
    ― Mother Teresa

  15. I noticed you said that you love God but do not necessarily subscribe to the Christian part, but I think you have beautifully captured Matthew 5! American culture has, sadly, not spared Christians. We (yes, I am one) are as “my” focused as anyone else–my rights, my stuff, my happiness, my family–while glossing over Jesus’ radical compassion, generosity, and grace.

    Tolkien: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

  16. I love what you said here Alex. That is exactly what Jesus taught. He said it’s easy to love those who are kind to you but take it a step further and love the unloveable. Kindness & forgiveness stop the karmic circle 🙂

  17. We are all humans.We are flawed, imperfect and instinctful, even the just.

    Compassion is all well and good but I see no resolution in the way I feel when someone has wronged me. I know the Bible speaks of forgiveness but I am no God/Saint. My understanding is that He wants us to love as he loves but How am I to show compassion when I hurt everytime Ive been wronged, especially on a daily basis.

    And just to put a question out there, What is the remedy to constant hurt by others that involves compassion on my part?

    1. I’m not sure I have a remedy for you but remember to not confusion compassion with martyrdom. We can have compassion and understanding, but we don’t have to place ourselves in a position to be hurt. We can let someone know in a calm way that it is not okay to talk/treat us that way and give them a chance to change (while checking that we are not contributing to the problem, too). However, if the behavior doesn’t change, we need to make space from that person so we are hurt daily.

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