By Tim Wolcott
It took me by surprise. I couldn’t see the value of the forest due to the matter of the trees.
Recently I’ve been getting compassion fatigue taking a nursing home resident to church with me. I’ve been feeling helpful, and she would always voice her gratitude as we left services, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was her own worst enemy and that I was complicit in her demise. Jane (not her real name) is morbidly obese and would spend her time during the after-service social hour having numerous helpings of cakes, cookies and bagels with extra cream cheese. I felt pained from this dilemma until reading Alain De Botton’s latest novel, called The Course of Love.
I had been reading it to better understand the dynamics of spousal relationships. Mr. De Botton is an expert on emotional intelligence. His global organization, www.theschooloflife.com, offers great resources and a unique vision of education. Little did I anticipate how the section on Children, specifically the chapter on “Love Lessons” would clarify my mind and unweigh my heart.
Our dominant culture emphasizes that love, especially Romantic, is a give and take affair, quid pro quo. Our individualistic culture doesn’t acknowledge contentment with being at someone’s call. Mr. De Botton believes that this particular view of love tends to limit our compassion and frustrate our rational minds. Very young children through their exhausting dependence, egoism and vulnerability offer a different vision of loving to adults who are ready to listen. This kind of love in not based on reciprocity. Its “true goal is nothing less than the transcendence of oneself for the sake of another”.
Children teach us that genuine love is a kind of service. What’s so consequential is that most of us readily accept this service when it pertains to the very young, but ignore its legitimacy when it concerns an adult in need. I was surprised when I realized why my innate compassion for children hadn’t been activated toward Jane. She certainly needed my help, and I should have definitely valued the love that service to her offered me.
Children tutor us in a love based not on admiration for strength, but on compassion for weakness. Moreover, the child teaches the adult that service (love) “should involve an attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behavior”.