Compassion is a word that evokes landscapes, planets and macrocosms. The word seems huge, like it only applies to the selfless acts of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr.—in short, of people who seem like fictional superheroes incarnate. What I’d like for my son to know about compassion is that it doesn’t have to be a solely wholesale concept. It can also be retail, microcosmic, and occur well within interplanetary boundaries.
Certainly, it can be spread across great distances. For example, I want my son to know that when people on the other side of the world go hungry, lose their homes to catastrophic acts of nature, or live under repressive regimes that thwart human beings’ freedom and independence, then he should care about those men and women, those boys and girls.
Recently, after the Philippines was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, my son, Parker-John—and other kids from the congregation of Deep River Friends Meeting—decorated collection containers and asked worshipers to give what they could to help. He was very enthusiastic about collecting the funds, and I was very proud of him.
But I don’t just want Parker-John to think that compassion is something one feels only after typhoons. I want him to know that compassion is the everyday culmination of countless acts of kindness and thoughtfulness. I think my son is amazing. Of course, every dad or mom thinks his or her son or daughter is amazing. But one of the things that I find pretty exceptional about him is that he is so thoughtful about other people, in spite of being on the autism spectrum.
I’ve read up on autism, but I still can’t say that I understand it. Secretly, I believe that even autism experts don’t exactly know what the disorder is all about. Nonetheless, autism does tend to cause those who have it to be inordinately self-focused.
Yet, my son tends not to be that way. His mother and I—though divorced for many years—both decided long ago that we would never allow autism to be an excuse for poor behavior, bad manners, or selfishness. Throughout his life, we’ve gently reminded Parker-John of one simple fact—a fact that many without autism seem to forget: you are not the only human being in residence on this planet.
When you open a door, someone might be behind you. Make sure you don’t let the door slam on someone. When you’re winning at a game, then someone else is losing. Be proud of yourself, but be aware of your opponent’s feelings. When someone is unhappy, all he or she may need is a smile or friendly hello from you to feel better. When someone does something nice for you, say thank you.
I’m not taking credit for the fact that Parker-John usually demonstrates these little acts of compassion on a regular basis. And his mother wouldn’t say that she deserves the credit, either. We could have demonstrated these microcosmic acts of retail compassion until we were blue in the face, and they wouldn’t have taken hold and borne fruit without Parker-John supplying fertile ground for them. And like all kids, he forgets to be compassionate sometimes. But when he’s reminded, he’s quick to make amends. Realizing he’s fallen short and then wanting to atone for those shortcomings is just one more act of compassion that he practices regularly.
Ultimately, compassion is akin to a telescope. If you look through one end, you can see people far away who deserve your financial or spiritual assistance. If you look through the other, you can see people right in front of you. Some of them are hurting. Some are helping you. Some are just sharing space with you. What I want my son to know about compassion is that he should never ignore those he sees through the large end of the telescope. But he should be ever-vigilant about seeing those who are just a smile, a hug, or a kind word away. In short, I want him to try with all his might to be a superhero incarnate.