The Little Girl

96709672Most people would describe themselves as compassionate. But I realized something only very recently. When we show compassion, we can feel embarrassed, awkward or vulnerable. And the most damaging of these feelings is vulnerability. We worry that compassion exposes our weaknesses, allowing people to take advantage of us.

I was six years old when our church made a food collection for the poor of our parish. I searched our pantry that morning with my Mum and all we could come up with was a can of baked beans and a packet of crackers. We needed to keep the baked beans for our dinner and Mum was hoping to keep the crackers for a special occasion.

There was only one thing to do. We had to sacrifice the crackers.

Mum let me place the crackers by the altar in the church. I stood the packet beside a can of sweet corn. And I watched as a little girl with a ragged dress placed a single potato on the table. She turned and stared at me with wide, haunted eyes. Mum said not to stare back at her and I asked Mum if the little girl was one of the poor people of our parish and if she was poor, why was she making a donation? Mum told me not to ask so many questions.

Later that evening, there was a knock on our front door. It was the Reverend and he was carrying a cardboard box. Mum told me to wait in the kitchen while she prayed with the good Reverend, both on their knees in the living room, hands together in prayer. And as the Reverend left, he told me that God would always provide and to pray for my mother every day.

Mum said we would eat well that night. I had never tasted sweet corn. There was a single banana in the box and Mum sliced it up for me and my two sisters and sprinkled it with sugar so that we could each have a little taste. And she said we were blessed to get our packet of crackers back but we would still keep them for a special occasion.

But I only had one thought. All I could see in my mind was that little girl with her torn dress, placing a single potato by the altar, haunting me with those eyes. I hoped and I prayed that the little girl also received a box from the kind Reverend that night.

At six years old, I did not know I was poor. And I did not know that I lived in poverty and destitution. But I did know that there was someone else worse off than me.

And now I know that what I was feeling was compassion. Even more, I now know that compassion should not make you feel awkward or embarrassed. It must never make you feel vulnerable.

Compassion fills you with joy, it empowers you and it releases you from the bonds of self-pity. And far from compassion making people want to take advantage of you, it makes people want to know you, to be around you, to love you.

I still worry about the little girl in the ragged dress with the haunted eyes.

Comments

  1. John,

    Another beautiful post that truly does illustrate compassion and, especially, compassion in children.

    When I was around 6, I wanted a hat like one I had seen a girl wear in the movies. Came Easter, I got a hat like that as an Easter gift. My mother being Italian, we used to go to a very poor Italian church in a very poor neighborhood. That Easter I wore my new hat to church so proudly. But when we got there I looked around and saw that nobody else had a hat like mine. I remember feeling ashamed and sorry that the other little girls did not have pretty hats. It was my first lesson in the inequalities of life. I never wore that hat again to church.

    Best,
    Ellen

  2. I wonder how such a sensitive loving child bore the life you did John? This is a beautiful story. I am so thankful that you have learned how to share your pain, and make it into joy rather than bitterness. So many people I know have made bitterness their creed.

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