The Compassion of the Christ
I’m glad I took an extra day before writing this. Because the sermon yesterday was on compassion, which is the root of what I experienced on Saturday.
Merriam-Webster calls compassion, “consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
Together with a desire to alleviate it.
A desire to alleviate it.
Compassion isn’t just a gut-level uncomfortable feeling you get when someone is hurting.
That’s empathy. That’s something else altogether. It’s understanding or sharing the feeling and stopping there. Compassion requires desire.
Jesus had compassion. The word is mentioned eight times in the gospel in regards to Jesus’ interactions and relationships with others. Whether or not you believe in Jesus the way the Bible suggests we ought to, most historians agree he was an actual person with an actual ministry that focused on helping the suffering. From that standpoint, I think we can all agree that Jesus not only understood compassion, he lived it. He walked in the desire to alleviate distress and the action to do so.
In order to talk about Saturday, I have to back up briefly to a story from Thursday, when I chaperoned my youngest son’s class field trip to the local Zoo.
I was charged with looking after Aiden and two other six-year-old boys, Billy and Evan (both names changed). Evan, I learned, would come with an aide, who would spend the day in our group, as well. I’d only spent a brief few minutes with Evan before the trip started, but off the bat I couldn’t readily tell why he needed a one-on-one aide. He made good eye contact and was engaging in conversation, starting some of his own, in my mind ruling out Asperger’s at the very least, and many levels of autism on the spectrum at most. He didn’t seem to have any physical disabilities, and his behavior seemed in line with that of a boy of six. All in all, I let it go and was just grateful for the extra set of hands provided by his aide. We all had a great day.
On Saturday came Evan’s birthday party. Aiden was invited, so I brought him without the loud, often accompanying satellites of other children. It was just me and Aiden in the car.
We went to get Evan a present, originally going for a Friendly’s gift card, but then Aiden announced he wanted something more specific. “Evan likes Barbies,” he stated. “And other girl toys.” I said, “Well we don’t have any stores with those kinds of toys in South Hadley, is there something else?” Aiden thought for a moment, then told me Evan is a great artist, so we settled on the local bookstore to get him a fancy drawing and coloring book, some new crayons, and a couple of tops thrown it at Aiden’s suggestion.
After about five minutes into our trek to the party, I asked Aiden, “Why does Evan have Mrs. Donnell (name changed) in class with him? Does he sometimes misbehave? Does he need a little extra help in class?” I asked this of my son because often the most honest answers, if not medically skewed, come from the mouths of the youngest.
This was no different.
Aiden didn’t take a breath before answering, “He sometimes misbehaves, and sometimes needs a little extra help, but also he’s a great kid.”
My eyes blurred over at the thought and I had to take a slow breath before answering. “You’re right,” I finally said. “He is a great kid. I enjoyed spending time with him at the zoo on Thursday.” To say I was incredibly proud of my son in this moment is an understatement.
Once arrived at the party, we parked at the same time as a group of three girls who all tumbled out of the car and smothered Aiden in hugs. (He has this affect on girls and I’ve chosen to enjoy it until he’s about ten.) On the walk to the venue, I fell into conversation with the mother of two of the girls in the car (they drove another classroom friend, as well) and I shared the conversation I had in the car with Aiden, along with my observations from Thursday about Evan at the zoo.
“He has Tourette’s,” she said. “Just diagnosed this year, I guess. It’s been a long year for them. And he’s going through a phase where he’s really into girl things. I called his mom to talk about gifts because I know he likes wearing nightgowns and playing with dolls, and she said they’re just letting him feel this out. That whatever he decides in the future is up to him but they’re leaving it alone for now.”
Another deep breath.
As an LGBTTQQ ally, I’ve been emotionally and spiritually open to almost all aspects of folks’ identity. I trip up with gender identity in children, and have been open about that too. I’ve never known how I felt about little kids who state they feel like they’re girls when they were born boys or vice versa. Not about the kid themselves, their soul, but just about the whole thing. It’s always a whole thing, isn’t it? It leads to questions I’m not comfortable with: Does God make mistakes? Do you hormonally medicate a person not yet mature enough to even take care of themselves? What does this all mean?
I thanked the mom for the “heads up,” and she encouraged me to tell Evan’s mom about the zoo trip, that she’d love to hear he had a great day. Given I’m also the mom of a son (my oldest) who can be the king of bad days, I’d already planned on sharing the victory with Evan’s mom.
But now I had all this other “stuff.” Compassion building? A little. Mixed with questions.
I decided to go into conversation with Evan’s mom as if I hadn’t received the inside information on the walk to her son’s party. There’s nothing quite like knowing other parents are talking about your kid, regardless of the intent.
So, word for word, I shared with her my conversation with Aiden in the car and my experiences with her son at the Zoo. She smiled and nodded, misty light in her eyes.
“He has Tourette’s,” she said, repeating my inside scoop in my head. “We finally got the diagnosis this school year. Asperger’s and even high functioning autism have been ruled out just recently. He’s got ADHD, too, and Tourette’s and ADHD together is an explosive combination.”
She told me about Evan’s foray into Kindergarten—filled with physical aggression toward his peers in the form of throwing rocks at them, hitting them with sticks and a lot of notes home and time out of the classroom. There was introduction of medication, she told me, in the fall. That helped. Then the aide came at the beginning of this calendar year. That helped, too. He was learning again.
Then, the big one.
“He also seems to be going through some gender identity stuff,” she said, averting eye contact for the first time in our conversation. But her voice stayed strong.
I nodded. “Okay.”
She leaned in. “So you might see some girl toys or clothes in his presents today. We don’t know what he’ll decide in the future, that’s up to him. We’re just going to support him now.”
Everything inside me screamed to reach out and hug this woman, to ask her to coffee, to love her. Compassion? Maybe. Was she suffering? Not externally, but I know enough about both human beings and society to know this conversation wasn’t an easy one for her. Did I want to alleviate it? Yes. Not to “fix” a child of hers she doesn’t deem as broken, but to alleviate the nervousness in her eyes. Concern for a child who potentially faces a long, long road. A child who is the context of the spewing hate of the public bathroom thing.
Instead I just nodded again and said, “What else can you do?”
True to her word, Evan’s presents were filled with Shopkins, art supplies, and some “girl clothes.” I’ll never forget the look on this child’s face when he opened a t-shirt that had a butterfly on it and the words anything is possible. It was the same look Aiden had three Christmases ago when he opened his loot from Santa and discovered the red Power Ranger costume he’d dreamed about for more than six months.
It choked me up, and I was grateful for the distraction of the carousel, where the party was held, to allow me time to gather my emotions.
Or so I thought.
During the group picture, a little boy was shy. My son got up from his seat and lead him by the hand to a spot next to him. Two moms cooed in his direction. One of them telling me that there was a day when she had to bring lunch to one of her daughters and she brought it down to the classroom herself, which she said was a huge mistake. Upon the mother’s announcement that she’d be leaving, the girl fell apart spectacularly, anchoring herself on her mother’s lap in tears, announcing she wouldn’t, in fact, be going anywhere.
This mom told me that Aiden walked over to her, gently put his hand on her arm and said, “It’s okay. You can come play with me.” He wanted to alleviate her distress. The girl refused, clinging to her mother like a buoy in the wild seas of Kindergarten. She looked at me and said, “The whole time, Aiden just stood right by us, quietly trying to get her to go with him. It was the sweetest thing.”
Compassion. The desire and the action. Aiden’s a clinger. I can’t bring things directly to his classroom for this reason. He saw this girl, understood this girl, and wanted to help this girl.
On the last ride of the day, I found myself next to an adorable girl with glasses named Zoe (name changed).
“My mom wants to meet you,” she said as we went up and down and round and round.
“Yeah. Her number is…” and she rattled off seven digits. I’ll cross-check them.
This little girl is a special friend of Aiden’s. She’s desperate for a play date. And other things, I learned.
“I came with (the two other little girls from earlier in this story),” she said. “I begged my mom to come and she let me.”
I nodded, a slow churning brewing in my stomach about where this conversation could possibly lead.
“Is your mom working today?” I asked, starting for safe.
“No, she’s home. But she can’t drive.”
Ah. I was not asking about the reasons behind that. I spent too much time in the addictions field to even want to make a girl tell me, if she knew, why her mother can’t drive. That’s where my mind always goes.
Zoe was holding to the twisted pole on the horse, talking to me like we were two women in a coffee shop. “She can’t drive because of the seizures.”
“Oh,” I cooed.
“Yeah,” she continued. “She could have a seizure while she’s driving so she can’t drive…”
I nodded. “Yeah…”
This six-year-old, going on forty, looked me dead in the eye. “Seizures are the worst.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “They really are.”
She continued, rolling her eyes and gesturing with one free hand. “Sometimes I have to call my dad, and sometimes I even have to call 9-1-1.”
I nodded again, begging my throat to open. To say something. To alleviate.
“But you’re a strong, good girl,” I settled on.
“Yeah,” she answered. “I am.”
And we finished our ride in silence. Up and down, round and round, carnival music playing in the background.
Up and down, round and round.
Soon thereafter we said our goodbyes—complete with Evan’s mom requesting we get the boys together for a play date–and we began our drive home. Aiden quiet from post party and post sugar exhaustion, and I was quiet with processing. Heaviness.
I bet you think this is where the intro swoops back in and ties everything neatly into a bow. That I was steeped in compassion on Saturday, a full day ahead of hearing a sermon on the topic. Wouldn’t that be tidy?
That’s not it.
I was conveniently baptized in compassion twenty-four hours ahead of the sermon. Wanting to alleviate the distress around me. Wanting to hug. Listen. Plan play dates.
But there was something bigger.
Jesus is the master of compassion. His ministry thrived on it. And the compassion surging through Saturday was Jesus’ compassion for me.
Jesus felt my distress about kids and parents. Six year old’s who know what seizures are, who have experience with 911 operators. My lamenting questions about gender identity and what it all means in the context of a Kindergartener, and he showed compassion for me by showing me the faces of those he loves. Those God created. With hearts, and eyes that cry, and smiles that tell. Even those who “stand guard” at public bathrooms. Yes. I have to love them, too. Jesus demands it.
Jesus is conscious of my suffering, and took the action of placing me at a carousel on a sunny Saturday.
Up and down, round and round.
The way our lives go as the world goes.
Christ reminds me to love first. He reminds me that, no, God doesn’t make mistakes, but people do. Often in the way they treat each other. Jesus shows me that listening is the ultimate salve, standing by the crying friend and saying nothing is a perfectly acceptable action, and that play dates might really be the answer.
image credit: Michael Micheletti