Tiniest Teachers offer the Greatest Lesson
The Greatest Lesson took me by surprise.
Recently, I’ve been suffering compassion fatigue. Every Sunday I take a nursing home resident to church with me. It seems the helpful thing to do, and she always voices her gratitude as we leave the services.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that she is her own worst enemy, and that I was being complicit in her demise. Jane (not her real name) is morbidly obese and spends her time during the after-service social hour having numerous helpings of cakes, cookies and bagels with extra cream cheese. I felt pained from this dilemma until reading Alain De Botton’s latest work.
Little did I anticipate that his novel, called The Course of Love, specifically the chapter on “Love Lessons” would clarify my mind and unweigh my heart about what compassion means.
Our dominant culture emphasizes that love, especially romantic love, is a give and take affair—a quid pro quo. Our individualistic society doesn’t acknowledge the one-sided relationship of being at someone’s beck and call as contentment or love. Mr. De Botton believes that this particular view of love tends to limit our compassion and frustrate our rational minds.
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Very young children through their exhausting dependence, egoism and vulnerability offer a different vision of loving to adults who are ready to listen. Children’s love is not based on reciprocity. Parents' and caregivers' “true goal is nothing less than the transcendence of oneself for the sake of another.”
The love we bestow on children unconditionally tutors us in how to love everyone. Caring for and loving others should be based not on admiration for strength, but on compassion for weakness. Moreover, children teach adults that service in the name of love, “should involve an attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behavior.”
Children teach us that genuine love is showing compassion and caring with no expectation of return. What’s so consequential about this is that most of us readily accept this service when it pertains to the very young, but ignore its legitimacy when it concerns an adult in need.
I was surprised when I realized why my innate compassion for children hadn’t been activated toward Jane. It was not taking her to church that was the problem. It was that my act of caring and compassion to her needed to be unconditional. Yes, she has other issues just as children do who eat too much candy or get grouchy when they are overtired.
Compassionate adults don’t stop loving them or stop caring for them. Instead, we address the roots of those issues.
Essay by Tim Wolcott
Whom do you love unconditionally?
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