I used to volunteer at a soup kitchen every Monday afternoon. Many of the other volunteers had been helping out there for a number of years. When the coordinator would give me a task to do, I was often met with resistance from some of the other people. If I was told to put peanut butter in small cups or plate the cheese, inevitably another volunteer would grumble that my assignment was “their job.” If I tried to help with cutting up fruit or making a green salad, I was either in someone’s way, or I was told, “We do it like this.”
I eventually gave up volunteering on Mondays. I felt like the volunteers had forgotten the real reason that all of us were there and that is to feed the hungry. Many of them had become so set in their ways that serving was not a pleasure or a gift but a duty and a drag. I didn’t need to feel badly about something that was supposed to uplift my spirits.
I was reminded of my volunteer experience this week at church. There was a woman who came into the sanctuary with her hair sticking out in several places. I wouldn’t have noticed her but she was waving her arms a bit and acting excited as she walked down the aisle. She had a big grin and seemed happy to be present in church.
She sat near the front, in the first row of chairs. During the service she occasionally spoke loudly, she braided her hair, and when it came time to take communion she bounced into line with a big grin and put a red and black Minnie Mouse hat on her head.
After communion she went to the back of the church and was happily and loudly playing in the baptismal. She was swirling the water around with her hands, laughing, talking, and clanging the rocks together at the bottom. The usher went to her and tried to get her to step away from the water and to be quiet while the pastor finished up the Sunday service.
The whole scene made me realize that we need flexibility along with our compassion. Not everyone knows the social rules that we construct for places like church or school, or in elevators or on airplanes. Not everyone can imitate or pick up on social norms. As people, we need to allow for others to act in ways that may make us uncomfortable, or disrupt the way we usually do things.
The woman at church was simply enjoying herself. She didn’t know or see anything wrong with splashing around in the water that the rest of us consider holy and a place to perform sacraments.
The woman has a place in our church. She belongs there. She should be able to express her joy without receiving condemnation from those of us who would never dream of talking while the pastor is talking or playing in the baptismal. Most of us can say we have compassion for the woman but can we say our compassion is flexible?
Just like the volunteers that I tried to join on Monday afternoons, most of us are inflexible in our routines, expectations and comfort levels. In order to really open our hearts to people we need to add flexibility to our compassion and be able to accept the differences that our various disabilities present.
Flexible compassion is what I hope for when people are dealing with my symptoms and what I strive for when I’m faced with behaviors or symptoms that push up against my sense of normalcy. We all need others to be flexible with us from time to time – let’s make it a practice we live, so others can be included without shame, embarrassment, or hard feelings.
Flexible compassion – my new mantra.
Soup kitchen photo available from Shutterstock