The algebra of grace

Compassion is not something we have to talk ourselves into, but it flows out of grace and gratitude.

I can remember sunny fall afternoons sitting in algebra II class, looking out the window at the falling leaves, as Mr. Walker droned on and on about the mysteries of “a + b = c.” It was exciting and interesting to him and a few other students, but to most of us, it seemed like a foreign language. I survived his class, even learned a few things that came in handy in college, but thought I put the polynomial and factorization vagaries of algebra behind me — until now.

The work of taking care of hurting and suffering people can be a daunting task. Empathy fatigue, moral distress and emotional exhaustion can affect all those who stand beside patients whose pain and suffering touch us deeply. I recently became aware of brain studies done by German social neuroscientist Tania Singer, which showed that persons who show empathy to other persons in pain have the same neural response as the person in pain, just without the sensory experience. Just as suffering takes an emotional toll on patients, so it does on those giving care.

And here’s where the algebra comes in: G + T = C. This is the algebra of grace.

“G” stands for grace or gift. Our equation begins with the presupposition that life is a gift that comes to us freely and graciously from the Creator of all that is. Life has come to all of us as a gift. We did not earn it; we cannot buy it; it does not come through any achievement of our own. Indeed, though we have all the riches in the world, we cannot buy one more day of life. It comes to us as a gift. The greatest gifts of this grace-filled life are not in our bank accounts or the size of our homes, but are found daily in the natural world as we pause to look at the green of summer turning into the vibrancy of red, orange, yellow and brown. The greatest gifts are found among those who sit at our Thanksgiving table, sharing the love and bounty of the harvest season. The greatest gifts are found in those with whom we work, and play and worship — those friends who came into our lives as grace and have stayed to sustain us. Grace is all around us, gifts to be opened every day.

“T” stands for thanksgiving or gratitude, our natural response to life as gift. Gratitude flows from grace like rain falls from storm clouds. Gratitude is not something we have to do, not a duty to be checked off a list, but it is something we cannot help but do when we experience grace. Gratitude flows out of grace. This Thanksgiving season, think about the things you are grateful for, write those things down on paper, and then express your gratitude to your family for what they mean to you, your friends who are cherished gifts and a loving God who makes all things possible.

“C” is for compassion. “G” plus “T” equals “C,” and then, with grace in our hearts and gratitude on our lips, we offer compassion to those under our care. Now, at the end of our equation, compassion is not something we have to talk ourselves into, but it flows out of grace and gratitude. Allow me to turn the words of 1 Peter 4:10 into a prayer for all of us:

Dear Giver of all good gifts, as each has received a gift, may we use it to serve one another. Amen.

The Rev. Joel Sturtevant, D.Min., C.T., is The Rev. William J. Schultz community service chaplain, Norton Healthcare.

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