On the Meaning of Compassion

I’d like you to meet an autistic forty-two-year-old who I’ll call Samantha.

Life has not been kind to her. Any change in her routine provokes anxiety. The greater the change, the greater the stress.

Still, she does enjoy her independence. She loves her apartment where she can eat and sleep as she pleases. And for entertainment, she can’t get enough of YouTube cat videos.

There’s no reciprocity when speaking with Samantha. Because she’s egocentric and incapable of empathy, all conversations are one-sided—that is only about her. Consequently, she has very few friends outside her parents.

I asked Samantha’s mother, Cora (not her real name), what it was like to raise her daughter.

“It has not been easy,” She admitted, “especially in the early years. She didn’t speak until she was five, and her academic performance is at the third-grade level. And, yet, she’s a gift to our family.”

Her voice was so laden with emotion, I sought deeper understanding. “What do you mean?”

“She has given us so much. Before Samantha, I’m not sure I fully understood the concept of compassion. Today, I see everyone—especially those with special needs—in a new light. When a person struggles to step out of a car, when someone avoids eye contact in conversation, when another flusters for having to wait in line, my heart goes out to them.”

While we were speaking, Cora received two phone calls, one right after the other. Both calls were from her daughter who was anxious about an upcoming road trip with her parents.

Cora smiled. “That was Samantha. I can set my clock by her. She calls seven to twelve times a day: when she awakens, before and after exercise, before and after work, before she sleeps.”

“That must be difficult.”

“Patience comes with the territory,” Cora said. “She needs structure and reassurance.”

“Reassurance about what?”

“She wants to know if we like her looks, her job, her apartment. Mostly she wants to know if we’re proud of her.”

“And are you?” I asked.

Cora smiled. “Of course, we are. Wouldn’t you if you had a child who has managed so much with so little?”

I felt it was time to conclude the interview. “What’s the hardest challenge in being Samantha’s mother?”

On a pause, Cora said, “Watching how Sam responds when cruel people  roll their eyes at her.”

“Does she even notice?”

“Oh, yes. Because it’s about her. She knows the look.”

“And how does she react?”

“It cuts her deeply. She’s emotionally shattered as though a best friend had betrayed her.”

I nodded. “And what’s the best part of being her mother?”

She lightly stroked her jawline with the back of her curled fingers. “The lessons. For example, I remember feeling exhausted at the end of a day when Sam called for the eighth time. Exasperated, I said, ‘Sam, what is the matter?’ And Sam said, ‘Mom, I just called to tell you I love you.’”

ABOUT THE IMAGE: The mother and child are NOT those described in this story. I selected this photo from my collection only because it captures motherly devotion and compassion.

I was playing piano and singing jazz standards for a wedding reception at the Moore Mansion in Pasco. During a break, I introduced myself to a striking woman who was close to nine months pregnant and absolutely radiant. I asked her if I could photograph her and her baby when the child was two weeks old. She agreed, and this image was the result.

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