Driving to work this morning we took a different route having been warned by the radio that a truck had dumped tires all over the northbound lanes of the 400. The southbound lanes, of course were equally backed up as drivers slowed to catch sight of the mess. We, however, went on the country roads. It was a nice change and though the day was grey our spirits were bright. I caught sight of a school just outside of a small town that had one of those electric portable signs on wheels out front. It claimed that the school was building character and that today's (or this month's) character trait was 'empathy'. I smiled. Yeah, I thought to myself, you can teach empathy.
A couple days ago I was working in Boston. I had arrived at the office early and chatted with people who were slowly dribbling in for the day of consultations. One of the women there was a high up government official type and I listened in to a converstation she was having about a woman with a disability. She was excitedly talking to another mucky muck and explaining how well this woman was doing. She bragged on and on about the new skills the woman had learned, how she was coping so much better, how she had grown and matured. So full of pride that some of it slushed out of her eyes that she had to gently dab the excitement away with a kleenex. She admited that her mind had been forced to expand to include the possiblity that it was possible for the miracle of maturity to touch even those that seemed completely lost.
Yesterday I was meeting with some folks at my home agency and one of the staff was talking to me about a guy that she was supporting who was making a really big, and really permanent decision. She wanted, desperately, to counsel him against it. She didn't think it was a good idea. All she wanted me to say was, "Let him make up his own mind. He knows what he wants. We don't always know better." But I didn't say any of those things, she didn't really need me to. Right in front of my eyes I saw her grow. Mature as a care provider.
The other day I met with a young man with a disability, downcast eyes, broken spirit. Oh, I knew he could be a hellion, a manipulator, a generally difficult guy. But right then, in the interview we were talking about his past. The rapes he'd suffered. The abuse that he'd dealt with. The path that was chosen for him ... the one that he couldn't seem to find an exit ramp from. In those moments that we talked we were both entirely present and both entirely real. His hurt radiated out of him and enveloped me. I fought my own pain back so that I could experience only him - without contaminating the experience with me and mine. For the first time he understood that he was a victim. That what had happened wasn't his fault. The words, gently spoken into the air, grabbed his heart and shook it hard. He looked at me and I saw the boy he once was - and for a second saw the man that he could be. As we drove away from work that day I was quiet. Joe asked what was wrong. All I could say was ...
Today changed me, I don't know how, but I know I've been changed.
We who work with, or parent, people with disabilities have opportuntities to grow. With eyes open and heart in motion we can always be in the process of becoming.
I don't think character is taught.
I think we practice it until we get it right.