By Nina Hill, FC 18 Costa Rica
“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it.”
Gregory J. Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
Sometimes it feels like I speak a thousand languages when I go to work. Of course, I speak Spanish with my coworkers and the children, but each child has his or her own way of communicating. Out of the 50 children who live at Manos Abiertas, 4 can communicate their needs verbally in Spanish (ie. using full sentences to express themselves). The other 46 use their creativity and whatever skills and abilities they have to express their wide variety of feelings and needs. One can answer yes or no questions by smiling for “yes” or looking to the left for “no”, another says “hi” to me by making kissing noises when I come in to her room, while yet another constantly jokes with me by pushing pillows off her bed and then crossing her arms and breaking out in uncontrollable giggles. But up until last week, I had a really hard time learning the “language” of one of the children in particular. He was born without ears, but still has an internal auditory system, so he can hear very loud noises, but hasn’t learned language. He also doesn’t use facial expressions to communicate, rather, he slaps himself constantly to communicate that he is too hot or too cold, happy or sad, bored or angry, content or in pain… you get the idea. It would be easy to get frustrated by this; the sound of someone constantly slapping themselves and crying because of the pain and then slapping themselves harder because of the pain and frustration of not being able to communicate effectively can wear a person down. We try our best to give him activities, distract him, and put socks on his hands so that he doesn’t hurt himself, but something was missing. Until this week.
I noticed the other day that one of the ladies who cleans at Manos had made a special connection with this particular child and was teaching him how to clap in hopes that he could use his energy to clap and reduce the amount of pain he causes himself, and this reminded me of the creativity needed to work with children with special needs. Though there is always something to do at work, in the stolen and sparse moments of free time, I started trying some new ways to connect with this child by working on teaching him to clap and offering him different toys I found around the hospital, all of which he threw out of his crib. That gave me an idea. I found one of the inflatable balls that travels around the hospital and tossed it to him, and he caught it! It turns out he really enjoys playing catch (mostly so he can play throw), and as long as we were playing catch, he wasn’t hitting himself. It’s amazing what a little hope can do.
He is also learning how to walk (he’s around 2 years old), and he can walk if he’s holding your hands, but hasn’t quite gotten the hang of walking independently. He loves cruising around the hospital and is so adventurous and curious, so yesterday, rather than putting him in his “exer-saucer” I tried out the walker that the physical therapist brought in for him a couple weeks ago. When we tried it a few weeks ago, he wouldn’t walk with it and instead sat on the floor and cried, but yesterday, something clicked. He was cruising! It was amazing and a little terrifying because he learned really quickly how to open doors, but it was the first time in the 6 months I’ve been at Manos that I’ve seen him express joy. We all stood in awe of him.
It’s easy to stand in awe of him rather than stand in judgement of him because he’s a small child overcoming incredible obstacles. What’s difficult is to realize that everyone has their own way of communicating needs that we don’t understand. It’s difficult to admit how easy it is to judge them. It’s difficult to put the time and energy in to standing in awe of people when they annoy us or when we don’t understand them. But when we put time and energy in to seeing the poor (aka all of humanity) through the lens of compassion and hope and when we use our gifts of creativity and patience with others, the results can be incredible (and yes a little terrifying).