The Path Out: Can Child Abuse Be Stopped without Revenge?

Is there a tipping point in horrific child abuse cases where we shift from rage to compassion?

I don’t know, but if there is, I came close to it today. It came from back-to-back news stories about locked up children. One story detailed the situation of a boy in North Carolina, chained to a porch with a dead animal tied around his neck. The other children in the house were living in filth and starving.

This story triggered my righteous anger reflex. When I read about such things it is nearly impossible for me not to “deal with it” by imagining horrific revenge meted out on the adults who would do something like this. I think our own rage/revenge reflex is a coping mechanism for the wash of sadness and powerlessness that comes over us when we have to confront the bad things done to children, the things from which they may never recover. For me, sometimes it’s also about my own anger at being exposed to something I will never be able to forget, no matter how much I want to forget it. This is secondary but it compounds my intense reaction.

Then I read the headline for another story, one so disturbing that I have not been able to bring myself to read it. It involved a child found locked up and so desperate that she had started doing something unimaginable to herself to survive.

I’m not sure why this was my tipping point, but it was.

I started to feel something other than rage toward the people who had done this terrible thing. I felt sadness. For the first time in my life, I felt sadness for the lost people who have made their legacy one of fear and pain and death.

Anger and revenge are glamorized. They feel good and they burn off painful emotions for a little while. They can even give you an identity if you need one; I have an acquaintance who makes it his business to make sure everyone knows that he will seek public revenge on you if he decides he doesn’t like you for some reason. I doubt I am going to show up on his list, but you never know. He’s vain enough to be convinced this is about him, not about social justice and not about compassion and not about forgiveness.

Revenge, when spun out as deserved and the only means to justice, is very attractive. You can do something. You can take all of your hurt and your disappointment and your anger and do something. You can hurt back. You can tangibly show the world you won’t stand for something.

But what if the path out is intangible?

What if the only real way out of these terrible stories is through compassion, and forgiveness, and speaking out for those who are so damaged they are capable of hurting children this way?

Part of me hopes this isn’t the answer because it’s so hard, and I’m no good at it.

But part of me hopes this is right. Because moving forward in a different light, in any light, feels better than piling on to the very bad things that brought it all up in the first place.

Everybody Crying Together

Very young children express their feelings and observations with such raw honesty and unfiltered emotion, if we truly listen and are willing to hear we can connect our clouded minds to some amazing things.

Compassion means shared suffering, not simply feeling sorry for someone else.

At my daughter’s play date with one of her closest companions last week a bit of a classic two-year-old confusion erupted.  Her friend happily asked her mother to read books to all of us.  Then she picked up one of my child’s favorite books, and my child reached for it and started flipping through the pages.  Her friend tried to take it back, there was resistance, then frustration, then protest, then crying.  Lots of crying and wailing and heart-rending distress ensued.

I watched my daughter’s eyes shoot back and forth to her friend and the two mothers in the room.  She wasn’t about to give up her book, but she wasn’t entirely sure what the problem was, either.  I saw her struggle to understand, and then by choice join the crying.  The somewhat amusing thing was she still didn’t seem to know why her friend was upset, but she was going to cry because her friend was crying. 

The words she said were, “Everybody crying together……….everybody crying together…….”

We mothers knew we had to help change the channel quickly, if for no other reason than we were about to start laughing and we didn’t want to throw fuel on the tiny meltdown cases in our care.  We whisked them up and went to another room for another activity, and all was well in very short order.  (I recall chocolate also was administered.)

When I did some searching on “crying together” it suggested that we cry together fairly easily when we are happy, and not easily but often when grieving a shared loss.  I wonder how often we cry together to express compassion.

Compassion (from Latin: “co-suffering”) is a virtue—one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy (for the suffering of others) are regarded as a part of love itself, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnectedness and humanism—foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood.

Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  Forgotten.  Perhaps we are born knowing, and we spend a lifetime forgetting.

I’m sure someone with a degree in child development or some related psychology field can explain to me why what I saw was just a toddler tantrum; unfortunately I can’t hear you, I’m too busy listening to a child and making a pledge to be less concerned with why those I care about are upset, and more focused on being present with them when they are.

(The beautiful image used in this post is from Children: The World Affairs Blog Network and the entire post can be viewed at http://children.foreignpolicyblogs.com/page/81/.)