Compassionate gaze from freshman student packs ‘spiritual wallop’

| Ginny Kubitz Moyer | March 29, 2011 | 0 Comments

Not long ago, while grading papers, I read one that made me pause. “Once when my family was in San Francisco, I saw lots of homeless people,” wrote a freshman boy. “I felt really sorry for them. My mom told me I shouldn’t because they obviously didn’t study hard enough in school, and being homeless was their own fault. But I still felt bad for them.”

It’s rare that a student paper packs an emotional and spiritual wallop, but this one definitely did. And it got me thinking about youth, about compassion, and about the relationship between the two.

On the one hand, I can understand this mother’s response. Here’s a chance to hammer home the importance of studying, she clearly thought. And yet something in her words makes me profoundly sad.

If her motive was to sharpen her son’s academic drive, it comes at the risk of eroding his instinctive compassion for others. And which quality is more important? Which is more fragile? Which one is more likely to be nurtured by our society, and which is more likely to be discouraged by it?

Our world is quick to reward achievement and success. It’s not so quick to celebrate those who feel solidarity with the wounded and marginalized.

Are we in awe or judgment?

In his remarkable book “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Bound­less Com­passion,” Jesuit Father Greg­ory Boyle writes, “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

For most of us, standing in awe is much harder than standing in judgment. Our time and energy are short, after all. If we assume that others’ bad luck comes from their own misguided choices, then we are absolved of the responsibility of caring about them . . . or so we think, until we crack open the Gospel and learn otherwise.

The phrase “deserving poor” is often bandied about, but Jesus never actually made that distinction. He did not run background or GPA checks before entering into others’ pain. He sat with them and touched them and showed them that they were worthy of love, regardless of what they had done or failed to do.

I sometimes wonder if this Christ­like compassion comes more naturally to the young. There is something beautiful and pure in this teenager’s instinctive sympathy for the homeless, a trait that many kids have.

And what happens to it? Often it gets leached out of them, slowly, by a world that defaults to cynicism instead of love.

As parents, the question then becomes how we can stop that process from happening, and how we can keep that compassion alive, in its purest, most concentrated form.

I’m starting to believe that when Jesus told us we have to be like children to enter the kingdom of heaven, maybe this compassion is what he meant.

His words challenge us to see the world not with jaded eyes that judge, but with the eyes of the young, whose vision is often much clearer than our own.

Ginny Kubitz Moyer is a teacher, mother, and author of the award-winning “Mary and Me: Catholic Women Reflect on the Mother of God.” You can visit her blog at blog.maryandme.org .

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Category: The Lesson Plan