“I miss you, Mr. Bruce. I wish you were still my therapist.”
The words above are ones I heard today from my office. I got up, walked down the hall, and found a chubby, 10-year-old boy looking up at my husband. My husband is not a therapist, but a child welfare case worker, and we work at the same agency. This boy had been on his case load for several years until he was recently transferred to another worker who could focus more on his adoptive recruitment.
The minute the boy walked away, tears started to well up in my eyes. I could barely keep them in. This boy, the one who missed my husband, is the same boy who my husband worried about, had on his mind long after work hours ended, and had a hard time letting him go to another worker.
This boy has no one, but case workers. He has no birth family to connect to anymore. He only has the people in his life who are professionally charged for caring for him.
His small, vulnerable hands reached out to staff members today. He introduced himself, shook our hands, and used his little hands to make pictures for each of us. He needed this activity to fill his day until he met his new foster mom. He seemed fine, and had some boundary issues, but overall, he appeared to be a sweet and resilient little guy.
As the day went on, I thought about the boy, what has happened in his life, what might or might not happen, how innocent he is in so many ways, and how empathy tends to rip out one’s heart. I’ve been confronted with empathy and compassion several times this week. Just a few days ago, I posted this quote on a friend’s Facebook wall:
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” ~ Henri Nouwen
My friend, whom I’ve known since junior high, is part of a group of citizens who are organizing meals for the homeless in our community. During a recent lunch conversation, our thoughts turned to the idea of how helping others loses its “doing good for others feeling” and becomes an experience that causes full immersion into the trauma, poor choices, dysfunction, and despair of others. I think my friend has hit “that wall”….that painful, raw wall of human experience.
It is a wall that I ran smack into when I first started working in the field of child welfare. I was going to change the world. I was going to find families for the kids who just needed to be loved. I was going to make a difference. To say I saw my role through rose-colored glasses is an understatement. The first week or two were wonderful. I was warmly welcomed by other staff members, and was slowly being introduced to foster families, and I was starting to get some “cases”. By cases, I mean children.
Then, I opened up my first file of documentation about the history of the children I was assigned to find families for. There before me were the stories of gut-wrenching abuse at the hands of adults charged with caring for these little ones. Within the stories were layers of neglect, past trauma, dysfunctional family systems, and lots and lots of despair.
The stories of child abuse were no longer stories. They were images of innocence ripped away. I wanted to pretend that what I was reading was not that bad….but….how could I? How could I gloss over horrific sexual abuse, or babies being found laying in cribs among animal waste? How can I ever forget the picture of a 4-year-old, blue-eyed beauty with staples in her head from the physical abuse suffered at the hands of her mother’s paramour?
I hit the wall. My vision of the community I thought I lived in changed. I entered the underbelly of what is really going on behind lots of doors, dark alleys, and drug-fueled minds.
I remember weeping at night about what I witnessed through the pages of life stories unfolding in front of me. I had bad dreams…nightmares really. I know I was going through what is typical in the helping relationship field. Others before me had already hit the wall, and had successfully built their own resilient walls to shield them from the pains and problems of their clients.
The wall is necessary to get through the day, but it does not make us less compassionate. Compassion forces us to go to places we would never choose to go on our own. It kicks us in the gut, compels us to move, and pushes us to keep on “keeping on”. There is a difference between a “do-gooders”, and compassionate people who seeks to make differences in their worlds. Doing good does just that….it does good, but compassion does so much more.
Compassion reveals the gut-wrenching human existence that is part of life on Earth. As a Christian, I believe that compassion leads us to the place where Jesus exists. It puts us in the most broken of painful places. It causes us to see others with fullness, not just splinters.
It is the place where Jesus calls us to be.
I’ve thought a lot about the little boy who looked up to my husband today. I’ve thought about his future. I’ve wondered how it is possible for him to even dream beyond tomorrow without the safety of yesterdays. I’ve shed tears for him. I’ve felt pain and worry for him.
If compassion can lead us to feel all of this, then surely, it can lead us to imagine the depth of how the Lord sees us. Though broken in my vision of this little boy, and the others I’ve met along the way, I know that my human vision is nothing compared to the vision that the Lord must have for these children, and others in our world who have fallen on the downside of society.
Compassion calls us to wake up each day with the desire to grasp a glimpse of the lives of others. It breaks our hearts, and stirs our determination. Most of all though, it begs us to live a life walking in the full measure of the mercy we have been given, and to reach to others in ways that they see Him living in us.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:12