Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Truth As I See It

"I don't want my son placed in a class in which he will be required to feel compassion."

The above is a direct quote from a mother who did not want her son in the same fifth grade class as a student with disabilities.

The student she was referring to was my student. I was his "full inclusion" assistant."

If you don't know what a full inclusion assistant is, it is someone who assists a disabled student placed in a regular public school class. In my case, I adapted curriculum to my student's level of understanding, created and implemented a behavior plan, and came up with strategies to involve him in interactions with his typically developing peers.

Sometimes it was rewarding; other times it was frustrating. By the end of my stint, it was mostly heartbreaking.

My student was a strong-willed preteen boy with a great sense of humor and an enormous capacity for generosity. He was challenged with cerebral palsy, seizures, and was cognitively delayed.

Initially, my gut reaction was to hate the mother who didn't want her son in my student's class.

Lately though, I've wondered, was she really a monster of consummate selfishness? Was she all that different from most of us? Or just more honest?

Before I continue, let me make one thing clear. When I use the word "compassion" I am not referring to the impulse that prompts us to donate to charities. Nor am I talking about being part of some group action to address hunger, racism, illiteracy, or some specific disease.

What I am addressing here is compassion on an individual basis -- i.e., how we respond to a friend, neighbor, relative or co-worker, etc., who is going through a rough time.

I belong to a group called "Getting Old and Grumpy." Last time we met, we talked a little bit about a phenomenon called "blaming the victim."  You know how that goes. If someone has a run of bad luck, it's because they somehow brought it on themselves:

        They didn't have a positive attitude;

        They pursued an unhealthy lifestyle;

        They were reaping the consequences of bad karma;

        They didn't accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior.

If we're honest, we'll admit that we all, at one time or another, have found reasons to justify our lack of compassion toward someone who is suffering.

I said if we're honest. The one true thing I know for sure about human beings is that they are fundamentally inauthentic. I did not make this up. I learned it during a weekend, several years ago, when I participated in an event called The Landmark Forum. Since then, everything I observed about other people and about myself corroborates this fact.

The dictionary definition of "compassion" does not necessarily imply empathy. Yet, it is empathy, primarily, that weighs us down, compels us to imagine what the afflicted person is actually feeling to the point where we come close to suffering along with him or her.

At the same time we feel GUILTY for having escaped the same or a similar fate. Why him?  Why her?  Why not me instead?  In our hearts we know it's mostly the luck of the draw.

GUILT, of course, can be useful if it inspires one to become a better person. More often, though, its crippling influence only serves to make things worse.

To escape GUILT, we take refuge in denial or in blaming someone else -- including, of course, THE VICTIM. Thus, we are prone to distance ourselves with false or irrelevant justifications:

        "She brought this on herself;"

        "God is punishing (and/or testing) him;"
        "Never interfere in another person's karma;"

        "Better leave compassion to the bodhisattvas;"

        "I don't have time for other people's problems."

In pondering all this, I am reminded of a man I overheard, back in the sixties, who refused to treat his horse that had somehow become wounded. "Yeah, man...I mean, like he (i.e. the horse) did it."

In a similar vein, I remember tending to my cat who was suffering from feline pneumonia while an observing hippie chirped, "I guess Nature's going through a weeding out process."

I also think of the many parents I've known whose children were born with significant disabilities. Most of them stepped bravely up to the plate and did whatever was needed to provide their child with some quality of life. These people came from every strata of society, every ethnic group, every religious affiliation, every type of lifestyle and displayed every type of personality.

Except in a very few cases where drugs and alcohol were involved, none of them brought this suffering on themselves.

If I am totally honest, I must confess that I would rather not be associated with a situation in which I am required to feel compassion. Mainly, I want to be a happy, peaceful person surrounded by other happy, peaceful people. Of course, if something goes wrong with me or my life, I will expect other people to feel compassion.

So what's to be done about this predicament? Basically, I think we begin by recognizing that we are full of shit (or, in the language of Landmark), we fully acknowledge our inauthenticity.

Next, we acknowledge that our emotional impulses are perhaps not the best guides to follow in terms of our actual performance.

We recognize that -- logically and fairly -- the right thing to do is to be supportive of the person who suffers, however time-consuming or emotionally burdensome that support.

We acknowledge that we are all somehow interconnected.

We understand that our rush to judgement is most likely a defense mechanism against fear and guilt.

We also need to respect and forgive our own need to distance ourselves from the sufferer so long as the distancing is temporary -- i.e., does not constitute abandonment.

If we are religious, we follow the Golden Rule.

If we believe in a universe where there is no a priori right or wrong, we choose, nonetheless, to do what is right.

In either case, we choose compassion.   

No comments:

Post a Comment