Compassion to the Why by Karen Leslie Hernandez

This last month, I’ve found myself doing work on what I call, Compassion to the Why. That is understanding why. Asking why. Getting why. Having compassion, for, why.

Why is this important, you ask? Because getting to the ‘why,’ is imperative to understanding. Almost everything.

Let me give you some examples. I will start big. Afghanistan. After colonization, Afghanistan was working toward a modern world. I’ve noted pictures of women in mini-skirts at Kabul University in 1977, and although the country’s infrastructure was struggling, it was moving along as it should. Then, the Russian invasion in 1979, rebel groups, radical forming factions using faith as their political motives, and the rest is history. We have no guarantee or Crystal Ball as to if Russia had not invaded, of what Afghanistan would be like today, or if the Taliban or Al Qaeda would have formed anyway, but, it is safe to say, it probably would be a very different country all together. Let me also add this about my using Afghanistan as an example. Right after 9/11 and when the US was about to invade the country and begin its assault, I sent out an email with my worries about what that retaliation would mean. An Aunt of mine, through my marriage with my former husband, wrote me back and gave me a litany of excuses as to why we should obliterate this nation, ending with, “… and besides, they aren’t even Christian over there.”

If only my good ol’ Auntie had cared to know why, perhaps, she would have had some compassion.

Aileen Wuornos. Born to a father in prison for sex crimes and a troubled man who eventually committed suicide, Aileen’s mother abandoned her when she was four and she was then adopted by her maternal grandparents. Sexually assaulted by her own grandfather, incestuous with her own brother, and raped and impregnated by her Grandfather’s friend, Aileen never had a chance to become a ‘normal’ adult. As a grown woman, Aileen prostituted herself out and during that time, killed seven men, shooting them, point blank. She said it was because they either raped her or tried to rape her. Most people wouldn’t even know Aileen’s story had the movie Monster, not been made. I believe the term Monster, was misplaced.

Perhaps had Aileen never been raped by her grandfather, her grandfather’s friend, impregnated as a teenager, or, never engaged in sex with her brother, Aileen might have had a fighting chance to become a grown woman, go to college, marry and have a family of her own.

I am a certified domestic violence advocate. I work with women around the United States, counseling them, advising them, and at times, designing escape plans for them. I do this free of charge, because it’s needed. Many times women who are in need of advice, or worse, need to escape before they’re killed by their abusive partner, have no money, which keeps them from seeking the help they so desperately need. As a domestic violence survivor, I am always perplexed at how much work the victim must do to escape an abusive relationship, and worse, how almost everyone puts the blame on the victim and asks, “Why won’t she just leave?” Aside from the fact that when a woman is in a violent relationship, she is most in danger when she leaves, there are many other factors as to why women stay – financial constraints, children, no place to go to, and so many more. In return to all the questions surrounding women and why they stay in violent and abusive relationships, I always posit this question: Why is he hurting her? Because until we get to the why, men will continue to harm and abuse women.

Perhaps we should teach our boys to not hurt girls, ever, and hold them accountable for their “boyish” behavior. In that, the hope is that boys will grow up and learn to never hurt women. They will have unlearned what boys have learned for centuries.

Almost every story you hear, of someone hurting another, that perpetrator was hurt themselves. When I am teaching, I always use the phrase, Hurt people, hurt people. Healed people, heal people.

On a side note, please do not confuse understanding why, with condonation, or worse, not holding someone accountable for harming another. Of course that is not what I mean. However, what I am finding in my work as a Restorative Justice Practitioner and Peacebuilder, is that until we truly understand why, we will keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I see the order as:

  • Understand why
  • Find compassion for the why
  • Hold accountable
  • And, if necessary, forgive

Compassion to the why carries a duality that is missing in our world.

Compassion to the why creates a place of reconciliation, of sacred ground, and of true empathy.

We all know compassion takes work. I am always perplexed when I see workshops that teach folks how to be compassionate. I ask myself, Compassion needs to be taught? Apparently so. I believe we are born compassionate beings. I believe that if we are in need of compassion, then somewhere along the way, we lost it, due to our life circumstances, our never receiving compassion ourselves, or, our inability to connect with the sacred, or, connect with humanity itself. It seems, perhaps, that we need to not necessarily be taught to be compassionate, but, instead, we need to be reminded of our innate compassion.

Lets get real though – understanding why, takes a lot of work – work that many don’t know how to do, can’t do, don’t want to do, or, see as utter nonsense. Because lets face it, it is so much easier to blame, stay angry, hate, hurt, point fingers, or walk away. There’s a perceived power in all of that anger and retaliation. When, in reality, retaliation, finding no compassion, not caring why, or not forgiving, does nothing but exacerbate an already intolerant soul, which leads to an intolerant society, which leads to an intolerant world. And we continue this never ending cycle of abusing ourselves and each other.

I know this for sure: God doesn’t hate. God must have compassion, for if not, She would have smote us a very long time ago. And, God is All-Knowing – She knows why. About everything and everyone. And, imagine – God still loves us. All of us. The Sacred is grounded in compassion to the why, it seems.

I wonder … is it as much work for Her, as it is for us?


Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report NetworkThe Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Some of her past gigs include designing and teaching an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, as well as spending three years working with United Religions Initiative in several different positions. As an Over-Achiever, Karen has not one, but two theological master’s degrees – one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology. She did her BA at Wellesley College. Karen currently lives in San Francisco, works at St Anthony’s, teaches workshops throughout the Bay Area, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, is pursuing her Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a certified domestic violence advocate.

Categories: abuse, Activism, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, General, Identity Construction, trauma, Violence, Violence Against Women

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12 replies

  1. Oh, wow, I love your writing. It is so compassionate and loving, using wording that is rare when it comes to this topic. Last month, I took a course in Mental Health in Pop Culture which explored some of the same things you’re describing here – how mental health is portrayed in the news (leading to violent, horrible, unpredictable behavior) is often not the whole story, like in Aileen’s case. While reading your piece, I found myself nodding along and wishing there was a book exploring what you write about here. There could be a whole book on how to be compassionate in the why! If you’d ever consider it, I think that would be a great resource for churches and mosques everywhere. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Right after I read your pot, Leslie, I discovered a piece called “9 Steps to Forgiveness.” It reflected my own experience with my rape. It takes a while to find compassion, and I’m not sure that it’s possible for everyone to get through all 9 steps, and maybe it’s not appropriate for some situations. Here’sthe URL:


    • Thank you, Nancy, for our honest response. I hope my piece didn’t trigger you in any way. I can imagine finding compassion for anyone who would harm a person in such a way is incredibly difficult. You were violated and there is no excuse. I hope you are seeking therapy, doing that hard inner work, and practicing self-compassion – for yourself first. I admire your bravery for speaking out. It isn’t easy. Wishing you peace and inner strength as you forge ahead.


      • I was raped 51 years ago, and have had the time to find compassion, for myself and even for my rapist. But it certainly took a lot of time and a lot of work, both inner and outer. It would probably take a whole post to detail the process involved.


  3. Thank you Karen. Someone said something to the effect that a good question is often more important than the most brilliant answer. But most of the time, children are discouraged from asking “why”, adults are told: “it’s the custom, or tradition, or the way things are done”. We are taught to “obey” those in power and control or with status. When we use the word “justice” we often mean “revenge”, “punishment”, “tit for tat”. And “compassion” seems to be, or so I’ve been told, the opposite of this “justice”.

    We have much work to do as a human race. Some ask why the Taliban and other such groups are so violent. But never ask why the Christian Right is so violent, and has been through the centuries. Maybe the biggest “why” is the one we need to ask ourselves, each one. Thank you for the work you are doing to find clarity and give support to others.


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