Almost two weeks ago, little Basti asked me over dinner, “How come poor kids do not have families?” The question made me stop and think where the question was coming from. I knew they must have discussed it in class. Then I carefully said, “They have families. Every one of us has a family.”
Then he asked: “But how come they find babies in the trash can? No one wants them?” I explained, again carefully, how poor people struggle to feed and support a family.
Before sleeping I prayed with him. Then, after we finished praying for family and friends, he said, “We have to pray for the poor.” And so for the first time in years of praying with the little boy, we prayed for the poor upon his own request.
This year I was invited to be a part of the board of judges for the third Jollibee Family Values Award. One of the main topics discussed was when and how you start to teach children compassion.
Basti’s awareness of the poor kids around him and praying for them gives us a glimpse of the two important channels that teach and nurture compassion in children: the school and the family.
Close to 20 years ago, Fr. Howard Gray, SJ, the former Provincial-Superior of the Detroit Jesuits in the US and one of the experts on Ignatian Spirituality, conducted an eight-day retreat for us. We were in the seminary then.
He used today’s Gospel, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in one of our conferences. Fr. Gray pointed out that what the Good Samaritan did was build a network of compassion. Not only did he involve the innkeeper, but his act became an example to emulate by others.
Acts of compassion
Fr. Gray said that all acts of compassion have in them this grace to build a network of compassion. I invite you to reflect on today’s Gospel from this perspective: How do we build networks of compassion?
The topic from the Jollibee Family Values Awards panel discussion is a good starting point: When and how do we teach children compassion?
It is never too early to teach children to be compassionate. More basic question, perhaps, is: What is compassion?
Let us look at the lawyer in the Gospel. He is a good man and knew the law, what was right and good. Whatever motivated him, he sought to understand more and asks Christ the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
This occasioned Christ’s famous story, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This is perhaps the first lesson of compassion, to look beyond I, me and myself, and look toward the other.
In the Jollibee Family Values Awards discussion, one story shared was how a 4-year-old kid would share whatever he was given. If someone gave him candies, instinctively he would divide it not just among his family, but also include the household staff.
Someone made a comment that this was somewhat “unusual,” since the nature of kids is to be self-centered at the start, which is a normal stage of development.
A check on this kid’s context reveals that he lived in a family environment where he was showered with kindness and sharing. This helped nurture this basic orientation to be other-centered, to share.
Empathizing with the other
The next step of compassion is the feeling for the other. Some call it empathy, but it is so much more. In its etymology, compassion means to feel with someone in his/her suffering, to co-suffer with another person.
Last December for Holy Family Sunday, I shared a thought from the book “Big Questions, Worthy Dreams” by Dr. Sharon Daloz-Parks. In the same book, she cites a definition of compassion as entering the chaos the other person; not just to enter, but to feel and struggle with the person and help him/her to have a sense of peace and order.
This is a rather powerful image of compassion, entering the chaos of one who suffers, just like the Good Samaritan in the Gospel for today. He enters the misfortune and pain of the man who was robbed and beaten to near-death, but he does not get caught in the chaos. He is able to act on behalf of the poor and helpless man.
Thus one enters this chaos, but exits together with others, especially the one who suffers the chaos, with a community, a community of compassion—persons who care for and help one another.
The family, which, as Daloz-Parks puts it, is the “primary network of belonging,” the primary network of compassion where a person fulfills his/her basic need for “connection and confirmation.”
The second “teacher” of compassion is the school. I suspect Basti’s question about why the poor have no families arose from a class discussion.
Even now the difference is clear. The little boy prays for the poor in his bedtime prayer. I am sure the prayer will be answered. And I “suspect” part of the answer is the little boy will someday become a man who can do more; a man who will build a network of compassion.
Christ invites us to listen to his parable again, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He gives us the same mission: “Go and do the same.”