I have been hearing the word “compassion” being kicked-around a lot these days, but what exactly does compassion mean to you? The first thing that comes to my mind is that charity group, Compassion Intl, which says that you can feed a starving child in Africa for pennies a day. The second mental image that comes to mind is a really fat baby eating Cheetos®.
So, I have a friend who invited me over a few months ago to some family dinner, which was nice of her since I have no family in town. I met her mom, younger brother, younger sister, and her older brother and his wife; who, in turn, showed me their baby boy—it was one of the fattest kids that I have ever seen. Look, when I say that it was a fat baby, I mean that it was a really, really, FAT baby. Not in that “cute”, “all kids are kind of chubby” kind-of way, but in that “Oh, my God! Who rolled out the Michelin Man?” kind-of way.
The kid was sitting there with its fingers, now permanently stained a bright orange color, deep into a bad of Cheetos®–lips smeared with its cheesy goodness like the Joker’s red lipstick in Batman. Soon, the baby mammoth began to quiver and cry; the cries turned into screams as he tossed the bad to the floor. Baby needs more junk food. It cried and cried, until a frantic mother ran and grabbed another bag of junk food to hand to the child. Once given its new treat, the baby smiled… and ate.
When I asked why they didn’t just let the thing scream, give it carrots, or put it on a diet the parents told me that it was out of their love, compassion, and care for the child. They wanted to give it what it wanted, to end its crying, and see it happy.
When I was about 20 years old, I had moved across the country and squandered my savings on drugs, stupid purchases, and partying. Eventually I was destitute, and I was facing becoming homeless. I called my mom and dad, asking them to send me some money to bail me out of the mess I made for myself. They told me “no.” They told me to get my act together, deal with the mess I made, and not to ask them for anything again for at least one year. If I came back in a year with my nose clean and head straight, then they would talk to me again. Until then, I was cut off from the family.
I pissed. I moaned. I yelled. I said all kinds of things. I’m a fat baby and you had better give me my Cheetos®! But nothing worked.
Eventually I was homeless, living on the streets and sometimes bad “hotels when I was lucky—I mean the kinds that normally had “hourly rates”, smells like piss, and yellow walls that I had a sneaking suspicion where actually white…. Thus, explaining the before-mentioned smell. Within a year though I was sober, working, happy but struggling, and had managed to move into a slightly better apartment. My parents contacted me and I wanted nothing to do with them. I was mad as hell. How dare they not help me, show me no compassion, refuse to bail me out, and now… now that I’m doing OK, now they want to talk to me again?
My dad said that he would still not give me any money or anything, but that if I wanted to go back to school in San Francisco he would pay my tuition. I said no; that I did not want anything from him, but later I reconsidered. Not that I was not mad anymore, but because I was tired of being poor, and I figured a degree would help me make something of myself.
Fast-forward about 10 years, and we come to this last summer—I was over in the East Coast visiting my mom and dad for the summer. While visiting the story came up about my time as a kid in San Francisco, and before I was able to say anything about it, I watched as my mom and dad’s eyes welled up with tears, and voices cracked, as they said how hard it was for them to cut me off like that. How they would get into fights over it, would miss me and want to call, how they would feel so tempted to mail me a check, or fly down there and get me. But that they couldn’t. It killed them, but they knew that they could not do it. They knew that in order to be good parents to me, to really help me, really show me compassion—that they would have to show me some tough love.
I never knew it was that hard on them to do that to me back then. I never understood why they did it until that day, and my anger over that situation dissolved away instantly. They are good parents.
Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.
Remember, compassion isn’t always giving someone what they want, it is giving them what they need. In closing, I am going to borrow something from the wisdom of the Bible: For those who know the Way, correct with harsh words. For those new to they way, correct with soft words. For those who do not know the Way, show nothing but grace.
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