I could go the rest of my life without hearing the words, “I don’t want to take sides,” or “ I don’t want to know the details,” words that ultimately convey, “I don’t care,”—I’ve heard them all. It has been my experience that most people would rather turn a blind eye than make a stand and support a victim of sexual abuse. The secrecy surrounding this issue makes it difficult for people to talk about, or even speak a kind word of support.
A well known quote from Thich Nhat Hanh (a Vietnamese Zen monk) gives this insight, “Compassion is a verb.” These words cause me to stop and ponder the meaning of compassion and its application in my life. Verbs are words that express action, or a state of being, they are doing words. This quote suggests that compassion is more than just saying you care, it’s showing you care. In order to make compassion a verb you must embrace it, you must do it, you ultimately have to be it. As an extension of this quote I would add that love, hope, and faith are also verbs. You must take action in order to obtain these things. God’s words are clear, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Words mean little when they are not accompanied by action.
Over the years I’ve spent countless hours in my local chapel. This is a place I’ve done a lot of pondering whether it’s filled with hundreds of people, or just me and the sound of the organ. Last week during our Sunday services I began looking around at the members of our congregation. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know many of them. Each carries their own set of trials and burdens. Some have suffered great losses: health and mental disease, the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, addiction, and more. Living the last days in this temporal world proves uniquely challenging for all of us.
In the past I’ve sometimes shied away from other people’s trials for a number of reasons. First, I did not have the capacity to take it in because I wasn’t healed myself. Also because, I will confess, at times I’ve felt bitter that I did not receive the love I so desperately needed. Maybe I unintentionally withheld it from others, or I simply spent most of my life shutting people out. Now that I’m making a conscious effort to no longer live in fear I don’t feel held back by these things.
A powerful example of Jesus Christ’s perfect compassion is found in Mark chapter six. His response to the death of His beloved friend, John the Baptist, taught me a great lesson. John was martyred after almost a year of imprisonment. Jesus Christ was subject to all the infirmities of this life and I’m sure felt deep sorrow over this loss, as any of us would. But His time to mourn was interrupted by the multitude that followed Him. “And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Being filled with compassion Christ set aside His own burden to spiritually feed His flock. Even when his disciples encouraged Him to send the multitude away, He went on to perform another great miracle by also feeding their physical needs with five loaves of bread and two fishes. This is the lesson: that compassion born of the pure love of Christ requires the sacrifice of your own burdens. It is impossible to fully understand another person’s burden when you are consumed by your own.
So what should you say to show compassion for a victim of sexual abuse? The answer is simple: “It’s not your fault.” “I love you.” “I believe you.” “I have faith in you.” Victims who are allowed to openly express their feelings and are received well experience greater healing. Loving words, hopeful words, accepting words, honest words—are healing words.
It is extremely difficult for victims of sexual abuse to talk about their experiences. Their abuse is not their whole story. There is a whole person inside desperate to be known. Victims don’t want to be treated like they are broken. They need hope, they need to be empowered. If a victim comes to you it may be helpful to ask yourself why this person is confiding in you. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and trust to reach out. Most victims are looking to express their pain, or are asking for help, or looking for approval. They want to be reassured that it’s okay to talk. For a victim of abuse being heard equals freedom.
“And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light: Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life” (Mosiah 18:8-9).
This scripture in Mosiah is often referenced when teaching about compassion with focus on the need to comfort, mourn, and bear one another’s burdens. However, there is a second and equally important part to being called His people. We must also stand for truth and righteousness—stand as a witness of God.
Throughout his ministry, President Gordon B. Hinckley continually encouraged the LDS people to rise above and be good for something. “In this world so filled with problems, so constantly threatened by dark and evil challenges, you can and must rise above mediocrity, above indifference. You can become involved and speak with a strong voice for that which is right.” (Hinckley, Gordon B. Stand Up For Truth. Provo, UT. BYU Devotional given September 17, 1996. 10 January, 2015)
It is important to recognize there is a difference between making a moral stand and making a stand against a person, in this case, the perpetrator. The truth is the perpetrator needs healing as well, but it should never come at the cost of the victim. Making a stand or giving your support is not about picking sides, it’s about standing for truth, for healing, for repentance, for the Atonement, for God.
There is no such thing as neutral—there is truth, and then there is silence. Silence only increases isolation of the victim, suppressing those healing words, and prolonging their healing process. My words may not be perfect, but this is my hope: to be something, to make a stand, to be a voice against abuse, not against any person, but a testimony to pick God’s side.