A Lesson in Compassion

He arrived before anyone else, puppy like and eager, impatient for the hall to open. He was socially inept, and seems to have some rather different brain wiring to most of us. He was loud; raucous even. His proclamations were heard by everyone, including the people in the next hall, and usually irrelevant, ‘over the top’, and sometimes disconnected from anything that seemed to be happening.

They let him come into the party. Yes, there were wry comments, groans and occasional eye rolls, but he was welcomed. People let him raid their food.  They made sure he had plenty of Coke to drink, going out of their way to ask if he needed more. They steered him away from the alcohol, tolerated his occasional fiddling with the TV, and were remarkably patient when they (repeatedly!) needed to ask him to lower his own exuberant volume.  They managed to enjoy themselves and attend to the business of the evening, despite his oddball, embarrassing, and inane comments and interruptions.

Differently abled people can be a challenge to any gathering. I’m terrible at small talk. Small talk with a person who is somehow having a different conversation to the one I’m in, makes me cringe.  I want to run and hide. They expose all my inadequacies! So I was greatly impressed by what I saw the other night. They smoothly worked and celebrated around him without embarrassment, and with startling compassion. Indeed, they not only celebrated around him, they celebrated with him. The dutiful, stilted, and unwilling compassion I have sometimes seen, and offered, in church, was absent.

We were, coincidentally, in a church building.  But this was not a church gathering.  It was an election after-party, held by a group of passionate young people who had stood as candidates for the upper and lower houses in South Australia. Some of them had forgone employment, and even given up jobs, to work full time for months on the project. They had been misunderstood, slandered and ridiculed.  Many of the established political players had dismissed them with contempt.

There was understandable schadenfreude as the size of the anti Labor swing became clear. Scorn was heaped upon some of the platitudes and rationalisations offered by the party commentators, and by candidates who were interviewed as they were losing their seats. The cheers and laughter must have mightily irritated the people counting in the polling booth on the other side of the church complex!

I did my usual introvert thing in a crowd, which is to sit on the periphery and watch and listen. What an amazing group to see in a church hall...  The girl with the amazing full arm tattoos, drinking Smirnoff from the bottle... A candidate doing Wilfred impersonations at the window... The intense geek bending my wife’s ear about some arcane aspect of political theory... Pizza boxes all over the place... A widescreen TV tuned to the ABC, a blaring radio with Matt and Dave on 891, and people clustered round a wireless laptop connected to the Electoral Commission website... Beer lubricated heady calculations by intellects way sharper than mine, about who was winning in what seat, and game predictions about the outcome... Idealism still untempered by reality and, sometimes, ideas I found ethically repugnant.

And in the middle of it all, that bull in the china shop, full of noise and excitement... He was tolerated, and even welcomed, without piety or stilted compassion.  There was a lesson here for any church. I wish I could do as well.

Andrew Prior


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