In my work with homeless families, I often encounter surprises—not all of them good. But once in a while there is a wonderful surprise, like recently when a parent of several children formerly in our program wrote a letter.

Her update indicated that all her daughters were doing well in school and participating in positive activities, each with an eye to the future. That was wonderful news, but it was just half of her letter. The remainder thanked our staff for being nonjudgmental and going above and beyond the call of duty to help her family.

In work that can feel pretty thankless, with children coming and going all the time and staff having to pray and cross fingers in hopes that their efforts actually make a difference, such occasional affirmation is priceless.

But what stood out to me most of all in the note was one line: “Thank you for teaching my daughters and myself compassion for others.”

There had been no classroom lessons offered on the subject, no literature or worksheets promoting it, no overheads or PowerPoints or projects, but compassion was learned. That’s because compassion cannot be taught—not in the ways we teach academic subjects or sports or tying shoelaces or even good manners. But compassion can certainly be caught–observed and absorbed by those in its steady presence, and particularly by those who receive it.

As a parent of two, myself, this letter caused me to reflect on key qualities I would like to see developed in my own children (and in myself, for that matter). Compassion would be near the top of the list.

Another mother of former students recently shared a similar story in an interview for publication. Where she had once been hard and uncaring about others in trouble, she said, her experience with the people where I work brought her to a point of greater compassion. As a result, her life was changed and redirected toward helping others in need.

Both of these women say they learned compassion by experiencing compassion. Compassion is not merely help. It is more than just generosity, and it is certainly not pity. Compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

Compassion is demonstrated best in tangible actions, but it goes beyond action. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say it goes before or inextricably with action. Compassion is what motivates acts of charity and gives them meaning. Compassion is from the heart—or from the gut–and it’s unmistakable when received.

Unlike these two women, neither my children nor I have ever been homeless, nor are we likely to be. So how do we learn compassion?
For children, the most likely source of compassion is parents. Ideally, we parents have a ready supply that never runs out, but in reality various stresses can drain us of compassion. Despite our shortcomings, we hope our children do experience some measure of compassion from us.

Our children can also learn compassion as they see us exercising compassion toward others, including aging parents, troubled neighbors and the less-fortunate in our communities.

For adults, times of personal loss or other crisis can put us in a position to experience—and thus learn—compassion. Most adults are pretty independent and not used to relying on others from day to day. But when circumstances force us to receive emotional support, practical assistance or financial help from others—if that assistance is interwoven with compassion and we are open to receiving it fully–we are in some significant measure changed.

Jesus in the Bible is a model of compassion for both adults and children, while his ever-present spirit still reaches out with compassion to us today. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus says, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.” (Luke 15:20) That allegorical father is a picture of God’s compassionate love for us—even when we are disobedient and distant.

Let’s be grateful for the compassion we receive. But better yet, let’s allow it to teach us in such a way that we learn how to give it to others. Then they, too, can spread the gift of compassion to many who are in need.

Karen Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.

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