One of my favorite lines from our church’s official proclamation to the world about the family states:
The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.
I think about this often. Those key traits are important to us, enough that we had them on the wall in both our house in Owasso (the rental family liked it and kept it up), and in our house here in Bartlesville:
Our lives are very much based on our faith, though living often requires acts of faith that are sometimes scary when you can’t always see very far ahead. We pray often, and often need to pray deeper. Repentance is a constant, and a deeper struggle since parenting; it seems that parenting brings out all your shadows, even ones you didn’t know were there, and it helps me understand why family would be a required part of an eternal plan that helps me become more like my Heavenly Father. Forgiveness is something we try to model for the children, even in asking their forgiveness when we need to, but also is sometimes super hard and specific, like the letter we wrote to the drive of the jeep that killed my mother. Respect is easier to demand than to earn, and parenting has taught us more about that, also. We work really hard in our family, so that we can play hard, too, and I think we are good at having lots of adventures and plenty of fun. Love has so many layers, from my love with Nathan, to loving the kids that enter our home – and loving them as they go.
But compassion? Compassion gets tricksy, at least for me. You would think because of being a therapist or a chaplain, that this would be the easy one for me. There are times when it is a strength, but sometimes it is my biggest struggle. My work so often requires such strict boundaries that I often focus on enforcing those rather than bending rules to meet needs – because usually the real need is for boundaries. If someone says they need counseling, but won’t return calls or show up for appointments or work on therapeutic homework assignments or practice skills or whatever they need to do be doing between sessions, then I am not going to work very hard to help them because they are not actually choosing help no matter what their words say. If someone requests a chaplain, I can go and be a presence, but I am not going to offer prayer unless they ask, because presence was what they asked for (though often people also ask me to pray, which is easy to provide). If Nathan’s violin student shows up 45 minutes late week after week, he isn’t going to wait around every week in case they show up. Boundaries or managing our own time and energy, personally or professionally, is not about being mean or cruel, but about the structure and framework that keep both ourselves and “them” – whoever they are – safe and healthy so whatever process in place can work successfully. It’s really important.
But so is compassion.
I don’t think compassion is the opposite of boundaries, but sometimes when either one is misunderstood, then it can feel like the line gets blurred. It’s important to understand what each one means and how it is applied, and lately I have been focusing on compassion. This has been my struggle with Toddler’s mother and in some other situations, even with 13 coming back here, and I wonder sometimes what is compassion and how to offer compassionate care in good and healthy ways.
If you go to our church website to study often (did you know that was a thing, or that we are expected to, or that it is even offered to us?), they have a new section called “Happiness in Family Life”. That page has different links that go more in depth into each of those, including compassion. The page says:
When life seems tough, home can be a place where we find love, compassion, and warmth. Within our family, we feel reassured that someone understands and cares how we feel. And the compassion we witness and experience at home inspires us to be more compassionate to others.
There is also a quote from President Uchtdorf that says:
There are so many people in need whom we could be thinking about instead of ourselves. And please don’t ever forget your own family, your own wife. There are so many ways we could be serving. We have no time to become absorbed in ourselves.
This is one piece that I think is critical: we are most often not compassionate when we have the perception that caring for others is somehow disruptive to our own lives. We already had plans. We don’t have time. I am already doing something else. I am exhausted. I am in a hurry. That’s when we most often forget to have, feel, show, or give compassion.
But the command to show compassion isn’t qualified.
Barbara Thompson is quoted as defining compassion:
Compassion means to feel love and mercy toward another person. It means to have sympathy and desire to relieve the suffering of others. It means to show kindness and tenderness toward another. The Savior has asked us to do the things which He has done, to bear one another’s burdens, to comfort those who need comfort, to mourn with those who mourn, to feed the hungry, visit the sick, to succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and to ‘teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom’ [D&C 88:77].”
What is compassion? To have sympathy, to desire to relieve the suffering, and to show kindness.
So when I am busy typing this while the kids are playing, and the Toddler sneezes and shoots green chunks all over her face (gross, right?), having compassion is helping her get cleaned up. It means not being irritated at her for sneezing (because sneezing is not a behavior). It means not being irritated at having to stop what I am doing (because she is already my primary commitment). It means trying really hard to be focused on being sweet to her, and not grossed out by what is hanging from her nose.
That’s a tiny example, and easier some days than others, but it gives a vivid visual.
Another important piece of real compassion is not compelling. If, as a parent, I am interested in helping my kids become healthy and independent, then I must have compassion by taking the time and energy to help them learn how to make choices rather than making them do what I want or think they need. I do sometimes know what they need, but can also work with them to help them choose that. They need to learn how to explore themselves and their environment to determine what they need, and how to use their words to express that. They need to learn how to choose not only what they think they want or need, nut to choose the consequences they want to experience – for better or for worse. Sometimes (or often), they will not choose what is best, and it is painful to watch them suffer harder consequence, but rescuing them from consequence is not helpful. Then, when they choose well, they need that experience of the positive consequence just as much, and I need to let it be theirs and not interfere with that, either.
Most often, though, compassion means doing for others what they cannot do for themselves, whether that be through caring or helping in some way. President Monson says that:
Jesus provided us many examples of compassionate concern. The crippled man at the pool of Bethesda; the woman taken in adultery; the woman at Jacob’s well; the daughter of Jairus; Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha—each represented a casualty on the Jericho road. Each needed help.”
Focusing on what I can do to help instead of focusing on what problems are interfering with my overly-committed life helps me remember I am serving a person rather than being bothered, or serving instead of checking something off a list. Remembering the proclamation to the world about our Living Christ, I know that He “‘went about doing good'(Acts 10:38)… [and] walked the roads of Palestine, healing the sick, causing the blind to see, and raising the dead.” I have to notice that the Savior didn’t set aside certain days or work compassion into his schedule, but lived it somehow, all the time, as He went about doing the “work” of teaching and preaching.
When I focus on this, it slows me down and helps me to notice. When I focus on this, it softens me so that I am more willing to do what I would not have done before. When I focus on this, it empowers me to do what felt too hard to do yesterday.
How to apply this to the parents of these kids that might be staying for good, I don’t know. This has been part of my wrestling this week, and I still wonder what it means. I have so far only come up with idea of raising the children as well as I can as one way to have compassion, and to remind the children that their other parents really do love them as another way to have compassion on them (the parents). I can pray for them, always, but I don’t know what else I can do. That’s where I am still thinking and praying and wondering why it is such a prompting right now as we approach jury trials in the next few weeks.
And you know, because He said so.