Keeping the Faith

Can You Teach Compassion?

My almost-four-year-old has a sponsor child with the grandiose name of Giovanni. Giovanni Gonzalez Velasquez. He’s from Mexico and is the same age, which was strategic.

I want them to grow up together.

I want my privileged, white, Anglo, middle class boy to be aware that his lot is not the status quo. That just as he had no control over the fact he was born into a family rated in the top 10 per cent of the world’s wealth (Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, 2014), Giovanni had no control over the fact he was born into poverty.

I know. These are grand concepts for a toddler, but that’s the great thing about sponsoring a child – it’s a journey. Here are two boys who will learn about each other and themselves during that impressionable conduit to adulthood.

Sweet little Giovanni!

Sweet little Giovanni!

Giovanni’s photo is propped beside my son’s bed and we talk about him, explain the differences in culture as well as the similarities in interests, and we pray for him; for health, safety, provision, family and faith.

Master Nearly-Four dazzles us with his heartfelt pleas on Giovanni’s behalf.

“Please keep Giovanni safe and give him food and make him healthy and give him lots and lots of treats and lollies…”

As hubby and I hold his hand and let him prayer-ramble, we share gooey-eyed smiles at the sincerity of his requests.

Truth is, they are learnt prayers, the product of our own examples and instruction.

Which has led me to question: Can you teach compassion?

We were sitting at the dinner table with extended family recently, spinning the dream of spending time in a third-world country during hubby’s long service leave. We were waxing lyrical of the benefits to our offspring’s character development and hopes that such an experience would instill compassion in a relevant and tangible way.

Then someone said, “You can’t teach compassion to a child.”

We bounced the statement back and forth for a bit before the conversation moved elsewhere. But that proclamation stayed with me and hasn’t let up.

Can you teach compassion?

Various studies have shown that compassion is like a muscle. Yes, some of us are born with good muscle/compassion tone but those of us who weren’t so lucky can still improve with hard, dedicated exercise.

The word comes from the Latin ‘compati’ meaning to suffer with (com- “together” and pati “to suffer”) or to take pity.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you,” Luke 6:31 reads as a compassion imperative, if rather brief. After all, isn’t that what compassion is: putting yourself in another’s shoes, feeling with them, suffering with them, laughing and crying with them?

We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps it’s not so well known that the narrative belongs to Jesus, as detailed in Luke 10:30-35.

A man was robbed, beaten and left for dead by the side of a road. The first two people who passed by ignored him and continued on their way. The third, a Samaritan, “took pity on him” and not only bandaged his wounds and helped him to safety, but paid for his accommodation and care.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus concluded.

The “expert in the law” who Jesus was telling the story to replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

And Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

Can you teach compassion? I think so. Jesus obviously thought so. Compassion, after all, is the language of community.

If you would like to sponsor a child, I can recommend Compassion:

First published in The Examiner Newspaper for Keeping the Faith column on Monday February 23, 2015.

1 Comment

  1. I agree that you can teach it, especially by modelling it yourself. Some kids are more wired for compassionate acts, but we can all learn what it looks like. Great job showing your little one the way to love 🙂

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