Nonverbal autistic John Smyth is a prolific writer. He is currently in his sophomore year at Marian University in Indianapolis, IN. As a class assignment in his Theology course, John was given this assignment:
Reflect on a person whom you know that demonstrates Compassion After talking with this person, write a reflection on your conversation. Describe how they witness to this virtue and articulate what you learned and how you plan to do with the advice (250-300 words).
What follows is the essay John wrote about Laura Poorman-Richmond, the Facilitated Communication Trainer who discovered that John was not a critically disabled young man who could not read, learn, or speak, as the teachers and administrators of his school system believed. On the contrary, she believed that John was a highly intelligent individual trapped in a body he could not control. She began working with John at age 16 to help him discover his "voice" and break out of the cage that was holding him prisoner. It was Laura's no-nonsense attitude, combined with her kindness, compassion, and patience that has helped John reach the successes he has achieved, including graduating high school with honors and his continuing education at Marian. The essay is followed by a transcript of the interview he conducted for his essay with Poorman, as he calls her.
Poorman the Compassionate
The passion of one woman introduced me to what is possible when touching another's soul. Tearful wonder is always tested against reality as we see it. Usually reality wins. Wanting to escape my prison, I came to Laura Poorman. Through powerful heart to believe in me when there was no evidence to support possibility, when all experts said I was mindless, Poorman the Compassionate sounded my loneliness and heard my longing. With a love passed through family and nurtured in prayer, her place for loving had been prepared. Offering herself as a channel of God's love, she came of free will into the depths of my cold hell of isolation and reassured my fearful heart before leading me out. So much of what it is to be human is captured in her example.
I know many empathetic people. Each has the capacity to learn to help others like me to salvifically come forth from graves of infinite despair. We languish alone, surrounded by a busyness of self-absorption that makes us invisible. Only self-focus keeps most empathetic people from the next step of learning how to help. And here is where virtue is found. Like a small seed, infinitely different from what develops in the divine plan, lasting miracles of life and human goodness come forth from acts of compassion like Poorman's.
Since my resurrection from an isolation that always waits to gobble me again, I have seen Laura Poorman help many others be freed from their isolation. Witness of compassionate love has continued in new messengers of love who now model Poorman's compassion. Wasn't life intended to be this way? Intimacy is in our risk, within our lives and time, of seeing God in each other and opening ourselves for Him to be freed. Typing autistics are just one example of this.
I have learned that this is my life's work. When my mother was carrying me, she assisted installation of a unborn child's tomb whose life was lost to abortion. When I was losing my capabilities to autism, I knew I was committed to Love's wholeness. To walk a path with the least of us, Jesus had to become one of us. So was I given a path with my broken brothers and sisters who have only others like them and a belittled, crucified God to embrace with confidence.
Love lifts inspired sanctity in the least expected places, and sacrifice peacefully gives more than it takes in the end. When Poorman was broken and hiding out, she suffered much in thought and action. What she could not see was God's hand holding her in ways the darkness hides. Sanctity of virtue was growing. The love of despairing souls was lost only in perhaps little ways while she learned more deeply in her own life experience of loss.
Compassion requires more than feeling. It requires death on our own crosses. The son of God disabled Himself to be one of us, and He chose complete abandonment to prove the merits of compassion. In the end, if we would take our cross through His suffering in others around us, we will know His joy. The Poorman of Carmel walks with the poor man of the alpha and omega. I walk with them both, and all who love this way of compassion.
John's Interview of Laura E. Poorman-Richmond
John: In your life what drew your compassion out and helped it grow?
Laura: I was born into a family where compassion was the standard expectation. My parents were of the strong belief that you treat others as you would want to be treated. As children growing up in a Christian home we recognized biblical compassion was just the right thing to do. Our family participated in frequent service projects and mission work. I truly believe that compassion is a spiritual gift that I have been blessed with, and have always strived to further develop this gift throughout my life. As a teacher, I have always been driven to help children grow and develop by showing true compassion for each family and child’s individual needs. Compassion means that I see beyond color of skin, intellectual differences, religion, and physical and behavioral challenges. This helps me to reach each student where they are and challenge them to explore their next step.
J: How did you give this compassion to those who need it when it was not allowed?
L: My college education classed encouraged us to believe in every child, but taught us to “focus on functional skills.” They did not teach us to explore ways to teach and reach deeper for children with special needs. At the beginning of my teaching years, that worked, but I was not really satisfied. I felt that I was not reaching these children with special needs the way God wanted me to. I had a true desire to bring out more of their true potential and just couldn’t “settle” for life skills and functional skills. Those were the bare minimum, and I wanted better for them. I was driven by a higher power. My mom received a message about how to access what I was struggling with. I put my faith in God and got the training that I needed. To this day I am blessed by the gift of compassion for people at all intellectual abilities. During my many years of teaching, my desire to help people the way I knew was best was strictly forbidden. I prayed a lot and sought other ways to fulfill God’s will. I continued to teach, but not in the public school. The years I taught in a Christian school helped me re-focus and prepare emotionally for what God had planned for me. My heart longed to return to helping people with Autism.
J: There are many differences in your day job at the prison and working with those like me. How is the manifestation of your compassion different?
L: Truthfully the manifestation of my compassion working with people with autism and juveniles at the prison have very few differences. God has placed on my heart that both groups of individuals need truly compassionate teachers who believe in them to be successful. Both need emotional and educational experiences from one who has been given the spiritual gift of true compassion to make a difference.
J: Who nurtured this compassion?
L: My parents were very patient and loving people. They nurtured my compassion by allowing me to explore and develop the spiritual gift that I had been given. They drove me all over the United States to experience working with children of all abilities. My parents were always available to talk me through difficult times, to share their faith based wisdom and to pray with me for solutions. My mom was my strongest advocate of my work in special education. However, my dad modeled being the spiritual leader and always supported decisions with biblical practices. He would gently guide me back on track anytime I was straying. Both my mother and father were, and are, my compassion nurturers.
J: What keeps you giving that compassion every day?
L: Knowing that my life on earth is temporary, and that eternal life with my heavenly father is what drives me. My mom always told me, as a child that I have a crown, and should strive every day to gather as many jewels on my crown as I could so that on judgement day God will clearly see the good that I have done for him. The other thing that drives me is seeing the joy in the eyes of children/young people and their families when their child experiences success. There is no greater joy for me than seeing one’s eyes light up when their lives are changed by the gift God has so graciously blessed me with.
J: What advice would you give others who need this virtue?
L: I’m not sure I can give advice about the virtue of compassion, rather I can model it and pray that others will learn from me. I have had the opportunity to model compassion at the prison and in working with my friends with Autism. It’s quite amazing to see other people change their approach when they experience the ramifications of a compassionate heart. I’ve enjoyed watching those that I have mentored.
J: How did you move from empathy to compassion?
L: “Empathy”, or “putting yourself in another’s shoes,” is a precursor to compassion. I strongly feel that they go hand in hand. In middle school, my parents and I were told that I was not college material and should consider a career that did not require a college degree. They said that I had a severe learning disability, and that vocational classes would serve me best. They didn’t know just how compassionate and driven I was to teach. I was behind in school because we moved a lot when I started school, but I was not stupid. I worked with tutors for the next three years, caught up and by Sophomore year had all A’s and B’s. I decided then and there that I was born to teach! I could “put myself in their shoes.” Because of empathy, I became driven or compassionate about educating struggling or misunderstood learners. I can’t always put myself in the shoes of those wo have Autism or their family members, but my experience has given me the strength to push on.
J: What benefits have you seen from being compassionate.
L: The benefits for me are internal joy, and hope for eternal life with my heavenly father.
To learn more about John Smyth and read more of his writings, visit his website authenticjohn.com. (opens in new window)