“Compassion” is a word whose meaning we all claim to understand, at some level or another. A generally accepted dictionary definition might be “a deep awareness of and sympathy for another’s suffering” or “the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it”. The same dictionary gives as synonyms words such as “charity”, “sympathy”, “mercy”, “tenderness”, etc., all of which reflect the understanding most of us have of what the practice of compassion involves. I think this is based on a misconception. Compassionate action might mean acting very firmly, even harshly; it might also mean doing nothing at all. A better, and more useful, definition would be “clarity of perception (of another’s situation), combined with precision of response (to that situation)”.1
Whatever our preferred definition of compassion might be, the idea is relatively easy to understand; where things get complicated, of course, is in the practice. This is because in both respects – clarity of perception and precision of response – we are required to do what for most of us is near impossible: to leave behind all that we would otherwise bring to the situation (our hopes, fears, anxieties, expectations, judgments, regrets, etc.) and enter it in the present, with a clear eye and an unobstructed heart. For “[w]hen the eye is unobstructed, the result is vision. When the heart is unobstructed, the result is love”.2 Only then can we act with true compassion.
A child, particularly a small child, does not have the problem that we do. A child is born free and whole. While not without its influence, a child’s past (unless we view it as commencing before conception, in some past life or lives) is relatively limited, and the future is something that barely exists. A child lives very much in the present. For this reason, yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar has said that children are easy to teach: gaining their attention might require some work, but once you have it, you have it. Adults, on the other hand, might be physically present, but their minds are always somewhere else, on what did or didn’t happen yesterday, or might or might not happen tomorrow.3
My daughter Alice is now nearly two and a half years old. I was watching her play a few days ago. She was sitting on the floor, carefully arranging her mother’s hair paraphernalia – clips, barrettes, elastic bands, etc. – in a perfect arc, each one just touching the other. It took her some time to answer me when I asked her what she was doing, so absorbed was she in her task. After a little while, however, she looked up at me with a “how could you possibly not know” look on her face and said that these were her “kitties” and that they were walking, holding hands, to Myers to buy some face cream. My response to this was mixed: fascination and pleasure at seeing her child’s imagination at work, but also a hint of sadness at the realisation that there was an entire world to which I, as an adult, no longer had direct access. For it is only too true that, “[a]s adults we have long lost the key to the beauty of that child world. We can look at it from a distance, see the joy and adventure which flows with such spontaneity from a child’s imagination, but we can no longer enter into that world. It is lost to us forever. We were once there but somewhere along life’s path have lost the key to the door that unlocks that world for us.”4
Finding the key to the door of “that child world” is, I think, the starting point of the practice of compassion. For even though what the author quoted above says is true – it is lost to us forever –, we are by no means precluded from the attempt. The practice of compassion is, after all, spiritual practice. And the end point of all such practice is that place of freedom and wholeness that we left at birth, or earlier. Regardless of what we choose to call it – heaven, nirvana, paradise, or whatever – the way there is always the same: through the unobstructed heart, the child’s heart. It would be difficult to convince me that this is not what Christ had in mind when he uttered those loveliest of words:
Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid
them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive
the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not
enter therein.5 (italics added)
Thought of in this way, parenting becomes a form of spiritual practice, and a most demanding one.
Alice has few real dislikes. She has very clear preferences, and these change from day to day. When it comes to washing her hair however, there is no change: she detests it utterly. Not only does she detest it, but the older she becomes, the more she detests it. Now, even though we only wash her hair perhaps once a week, barely a day will pass during which, at some point, she will mutter “no wash your hair tonight”. On those days, rare as they are, when washing what is beginning to look like a mass of dreadlocks has passed from choice to absolute necessity, she will take to trying a different tack, which is to “skip the bath” altogether. When this fails also, she will collapse in a miserable heap, wailing all the time “no wash your hair”.
So far, this one has us stumped. We’ve talked with her about it and tried to understand why she doesn’t like it. Other than a little water in her ears there haven’t, in her short experience of hair washing, been any unhappy events. We’ve had her watch as we wash our hair, in both the bath and the shower, how we tip our heads back a little so that the water and soap run back and not forward onto our faces. We’ve offered to have her wash our hair with us. We’ve shown her how her “friends” (Bing her frog and Tabby her cat) wash their “hair”. We’ve tried springing it on her, hoping she might just take it in her stride (which she didn’t). We’ve tried preparing her in advance, hoping that she might just fold and accept it (that was the first time she said “skip the bath”). We’ve tried having Nina, her mother, get in the bath with her, in the hope that it might be viewed as a joint effort and fun (she now refuses to get into the bath if she thinks Nina is about to get in with her). And we’ve tried staying out of the bath and letting her do it herself, with a little help from Nina (that seemed to be a little less traumatic). So far as we can tell, what she really dislikes is having to lean back a little and tip her head back when the time comes to rinse out the soap. Understanding quite why this is so has so far eluded us.
Clearly, whether or not she has clean hair is not a matter of life or death. Just as clearly, her dislike of having her hair washed is coming from a place that, in her world, is absolutely real. So responding to her from the position of power we necessarily have as adults just wasn’t an option for us.6 We weren’t prepared to coerce her (place her in the bath and just dump the water on her head), or simply relent (a no less inappropriate response). The issue is far from settled: she still hates it. But resolving this – in terms of having her accept the necessity (and maybe even one day enjoy) having her hair washed – isn’t what matters. What matters is how we respond to her heartfelt dislike of the whole business. From the beginning, our challenge has been to get her hair washed in a way that leaves her emotional world and her self respect intact. And this, to us, means finding the “child world” in our own hearts and acting from that place.
The necessity of finding the key to the door of the “child world” need not only be viewed from the perspective of spiritual practice. Consider, for instance, the following:
Adults have not understood children…and they are,
as a consequence, in continual conflict with them.
The remedy is not that adults should gain some new
intellectual knowledge or achieve a higher standard of
culture. No, they must find a different point of departure.
The adult must find within himself the still unknown
error that prevents him from seeing the child as he is.
If such a preparation is not made, if the attitudes relative
to such a preparation are not acquired, he cannot go
The author of these words is Maria Montessori. She wrote almost a century ago, from a perspective that was primarily scientific and psychoanalytic, and based on her years of close observation of children in her famous “case dei bambini”. She arrived at precisely the same place as the sages: the need to see things as they are, and to respond accordingly. For, as she goes on to say,
[i]n their dealings with children adults do not become
egotistic but egocentric. They look upon everything
pertaining to a child’s soul from their own point of view,
and, consequently, their misapprehensions are constantly
on the increase.8
A child, in Dr. Montessori’s view, is not an empty vessel to be filled and molded by her parents and teachers. Rather a child is a being complete in herself, with her own active psychic life, developmental path and inner guide to lead her on that path. So, she says, “[i]t is not right to say that mother and father have made their child. Rather, we should say ‘the child is the father of the man.’”9 The role of parents (and teachers) then becomes one of protector and facilitator. Trustees, in a sense, of a most sacred trust – that of the child as a “spiritual being becoming incarnate.” The proper fulfillment of that trust requires that we learn to see our children as they are; to do otherwise is to repress the development of the child’s own personality.
The task of responding to a small child with compassion can present itself in many different situations. About three months ago, Alice, then nearly 27 months old, slipped and fell. The fall was not particularly heavy, but it was hard enough to bring forth a piercing howl of pain. After that, she refused to put any weight on her left leg. While there was no apparent bruising or swelling, it seemed to be tender to the touch. An x-ray showed nothing abnormal, but her orthopedist suspected a “toddler’s fracture” of the tibia (a fine hairline fracture apparently not uncommon for children between the ages of nine months and three years). He recommended against any further tests that might have resulted in a more definitive diagnosis or casting her leg. We were told to leave her to her own devices, that it should heal itself, and that she should be up and walking again in a month or so.
Six weeks passed and Alice still was showing little or no interest in walking. In fact, any attempt on our part to suggest it would be met, first, with “walking isn’t fun” and then, if we persisted, with tears. Even though we had been comfortable with the preliminary diagnosis and recommendations of her orthopedist, we were both becoming anxious. A week or so later, about seven weeks after the fall, we took her to a different orthopedist. Much to our relief, a second x-ray – as is often the case with a toddler’s fracture – confirmed what was suspected. Again, we were told to leave her be, and that she would walk when she was ready. That she did. A couple of weeks later, she began to squat, to bounce up and down and, every now and then, to stand, ever so carefully, unaided, but always with support close by. One day, about ten weeks after she had fallen, I asked her if she would like to walk if I helped her. She said she would, and is now running around like someone who has never run before.
Ten weeks was a long time, much of it without a confirmed diagnosis, and it was frequently a struggle for us to keep our anxieties at bay, especially when one orthopedist started muttering about other “sinister pathologies”. Alice, however, never seemed to be fussed by her situation: she was eating well, sleeping well and generally happy. Only towards the end did she appear to be getting fed up with it all. For us to see this – to see her as she was – was difficult. When we could, though, it was instructive: it was quite clear that she always knew precisely what she needed to do. For instance, she would sit with her left leg well supported; she would never put any vertical weight on it; whenever she did test it, it was by gently pushing horizontally; and when she did start to test it vertically, it was on a soft surface. In retrospect, the only times her leg caused any upset or pain was when she was being pushed to do something she didn’t want to do, or taken to see a doctor. Otherwise, we were the ones who were suffering, not her. Understanding this, as difficult as it might at times have been, was our practice.
The definition is Anthony De Mello’s. See Walking on Water, p. 89