Active Compassion

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A woman stands in front of a wall with graffiti and spray paint on it.

“I chose the name Rehema” Crystal humbly stated when I asked what her Swahili name was.  “It means compassion”. I then asked her what the significance of compassion was in her language studies, and that is when Crystal’s eyes lit up, as she reflected on the significance behind the meaning of her Swahili name.  “I think it’s really important to be compassionate with people. To me I think the word empathy means trying to understand somebody’s pain or somebody’s story, and compassion is like empathy with action”. 

When given the opportunity to choose a name in a different language, there is a lot to take into consideration. This is a moment in a language student’s life that develops their identity, connection, and ownership within the community, and within the classroom. As a human biology major with almost two years of Swahili behind her, Crystal felt compelled by the word compassion; not just in the way it sounded when spoken in Swahili, but in the way it felt when embodied in the classroom, and in her life. 

As I reflected on Crystal’s description of compassion, I felt a profound sense of connection between learning a language and finding compassion within that experience.  In order to develop respect for a culture and its people, one has to apply a sense of active understanding when learning, speaking, and identifying the language within its context. As Crystal pointed out, compassion is the action of empathy, and by choosing to learn a language one takes a leap of faith beyond simple admiration of culture and into the deeper aspects of it, allowing  oneself to be fully immersed in the process of articulating thoughts, ideas, and experiences beyond a native tongue. 

A woman is touching a wall with paint and graffiti on it.

As Crystal hears her Swahili name called each time in the classroom, she will constantly be reminded of why she began this linguistic journey in the first place: to be compassionate in all that the present moment and future hold for her – academically and professionally. 

Compassion is active, as Crystal has come to believe and live out; and so is learning a language. Crystal is a perfect example of someone who has retained the capacity we as human beings obtain in order to live out the skills of learning a language, beyond the walls of a classroom. 

A woman is crossing her arms in front of a wall with spray paint and graffiti.

 – Story by Kristen Gmerek