Recently, I was listening to an audio book—The Power of Vulnerability, by Brene Brown. It’s actually a collection of talks about various topics like authenticity, connection, courage, and empathy to name a few. At one point, Brene quoted Pema Chodron’s definition of compassion. It was so powerful, that I stopped everything and wrote it down:
Compassion is knowing our darkness well enough that we can sit in the dark with others. It is never a relationship between the wounded and the healed; it is a relationship between equals. –Pema Chodron
As a pondered Pema’s definition of compassion, I flashed back to a story about our son.
We moved John to a small, private school in second grade. Emotionally, it was scary pulling John out of public school, special education, where he had a civil right to be there. But I had to trust my gut that this small, Christian school would accept John and help him acquire the social graces he needed to succeed on the playground and beyond. There was only one other family in the class that knew John had autism. We felt safe telling this family. They too had a family member with autism, so we knew they held John's diagnosis in confidence. The administration and staff also knew too.
John was in a very small class, which meant a lot of one-on-one attention. Because of the small class size, the second grade and the three grade classes where combined in the afternoon for science and history.
The first three weeks went by and all seemed to be well. I just crossed my fingers and felt the fear anyways, as I allowed John to jump into the deep end of the mainstream pool. Okay, full disclosure, I did more than cross my fingers the first three weeks. In fact, I cried in the principal’s office several times, completely overwhelmed by a mixture of gratitude and fear. I felt overjoyed by the miracle that John was doing well and had overcome so much to even be accepted at this private school, that did not have to admit him unless he deserved to be their academically and developmentally. And yet the fear that somehow John would not fit into the invisible social mold and that the school would discover something about John that would require his departure, simply paralyzed me from leaving campus some mornings after I drop off.
Miss Gayle, the principal, embraced my vulnerability, met me with compassion, and consoled my tender heart time and time again. In fact one morning, as I cleaned out her box of Kleenex, she told me that John being there was a blessing to the entire school.
Then one afternoon, as I pulled up in carline, the third grade teacher made a bee-line for my car and motioned for me to roll down the window. I thought to myself, "here we go - I knew this wasn't going to last.” The hope that no news was good news was now lost forever.
I rolled down my window and inched the car forward a bit more so that Alyssa and John could hop in, and as I slowly pulled away so the car behind me could pull forward, the teacher said, So in class today, it kind of came out that John has autism; I just wanted you to know. As my car pulled out of the school parking lot, I thought, oh shit, you can't close that can of worms now that it’s been open. My next thought was, let's find out how the news flash about John having autism got released.
First things first, I contacted the teacher to find out what happened. Innocently enough, it turns out that John’s teacher read the class a story about a boy with autism. The boy in the story had autism, but he wasn't anything like John. He had very little language. He was in a public school with an aide. He repeated words that people said and couldn't answer direct questions. Miss Sarah explained that after the story the kids had a lot of questions about autism.
What is autism?
Is it an illness?
Can you catch autism?
Then someone blurted out, do we know anyone with autism? And one of John's classmates said, yes, John has autism. The class replied in unison, John, you have autism? And John said, yeah, I have autism, like no big deal what's the problem. He said it so matter of fact and that was that. The school day ended with the news flash that John had autism with no other explanation.
So there was no way that I could let the subject of autism end there. I knew in my heart that John's classmates had questions. So I arranged to have an autism expert and I go into the classroom and talk about autism, to facilitate a conversation.
I felt very confident about going into the John's class. I came prepared with a behavioral consultant, an expert in the field of autism, don't you know. Jennifer and I talked for about thirty seconds about autism and then we opened the floor for questions from his peers. Every single hand popped up as soon as we offered them the chance to ask questions. So, one at a time, we began to call on each student and it went something like this:
Child: Is it autism when someone falls down a lot?
Therapist: Well, it can me.
Me: Is that what you see John do at school?
Me: What do you think about John falling down a lot?
Child: Why is he doing that?
Me: Why don't you ask him? Friends can ask each other questions when we don't know what they are doing or why they are doing things we don't understand. That's how we learn right, by asking questions.
Child: But why does he fall down a lot?
Me: John can tell you if you ask him, but I can give you one answer or possible reason. Some people with autism experience physical input and sensation different than people that don't have autism. There is a fancy name for it called proprioception. Basically, it feels good when John falls down, so that is why he does it a lot.
John: But sometimes I'm playing a game like Tom and Jerry and that's why I fall down.
Me: Next question...
Child 2: Is it autism when someone gets really close in your face?
Therapist: Well, it can be.
Me: Is that what you see John do at school?
Child 2: Yes.
Me: What do you think about it?
Child 2: I don't like it when he gets too close to my face.
Me: You can tell John politely to back up. It's okay to be honest when someone is in your personal space. You will feel better and John will learn to have better boundaries with personal space.
This dialog went back and forth for the better part of forty minutes. John was in the room the whole time listening to the questions his friends had about him and his behavior. The class got their questions asked and answered to their satisfaction and the conversation about autism ultimately resulted in compassion for differences. We talked about how everyone has strengths and weaknesses and that we aren't all good at all things. At the end of the day, John’s classmates discovering he had autism was the best thing that could have happened, because compassion took over before judgment could settle in.
As I think back to the class conversation about John having autism, I am moved to tears, remembering how his classmates met him with compassion rather than judgment. I’m confident compassion was modeled to these kids. It started with the leadership of the principal, their teachers, and I’m certain their parents too. The reality is that everyone judges; we are human. Yet with intention and practice, we can choose compassion, even when judgment would be easier and more familiar.
Compassion is about “we’re in this together,” where judgment is about keeping track of differences, sizing up people and situations, keeping score, and taking sides. Judgment divides. Compassion unites. Be courageous - choose compassion.
How does judgment get in your way? How has compassion made your life better?
To learn more about how personal development coaching can help you deal with judgment and help you embrace compassion, visit www.michelewaterman.com.