Earlier this year I held in my arms the youngest child we have ever taken into our Survivor Care program. She was a 1 year old baby and had been sold and exploited for cyberporn.
I held it together until I got to my hotel room. And then I broke down. I kept thinking: It would be so much easier if this work just felt like a job to me. I wouldn’t be sobbing in this hotel room.
Sometimes it feels like this love came with a wound. I certainly felt it that day, like a sinkhole in my chest, as I tried to make sense of the nauseating idea (no: the nauseating fact) that such a young life and body could be impacted by such horrific violence.
So much of my work with Love146 leads me back to that place of anger and grief. Each time I have to go there, I want to hide from it, step around it, seal it up. But the day that happens — the day I’m no longer affected by the pain of another person — is the day compassion ends for me.
Henri Nouwen said that compassion is full immersion in the condition of being human. I’d add that it can look more like diving into a septic tank than swimming in a calm pool. Something about it feels like a commitment to enter a mess.
This “mess” makes it easy to turn away from compassion, to forget what compassion is. Sometimes we confuse it for other good things like activism, aid, or awareness. But at Love146, I can’t forget what compassion is. I see it every time I walk into my office in New Haven, make a phone call to a supporter, or get an update from our safe homes. It’s a strong current that runs through our work. In fact, much of what I believe about compassion grew from the stories that came out of this organization. Here’s what we’ve learned:
Compassion makes us vulnerable.
Last year, someone commented that I must be really thick-skinned to deal with the trafficking and exploitation of children day in and day out. The truth is, I think I’m pretty thin-skinned. And we’ve worked hard to keep that as part of our organization: We want to stay thin-skinned.
Had we developed a thick skin, we would have been able to leave the memory of the girl who wore the number 146 back in the brothel, back in 2002. Our lives would have been easier. But we let her get to us. Today, the number in our logo reminds us why we do the work we do, and the safety pin reminds us how: We have to let the stories of objectification and victimization attach themselves to us, and make us fight for a safer world for children.
Compassion has the power to challenge our assumptions.
When young people come into Love146’s Survivor Care programs, we don’t try to fit them into a mold. We don’t look at them through a pre-packaged set of labels like “voiceless,” “powerless,” or “helpless.” Not only is this inaccurate, but it also hides the child’s humanity, potential, and identity, subjecting them instead to our own judgments. It lets us see them in a way that’s convenient to us and doesn’t require us to interact with their individual stories, needs, or feelings. That’s not compassionate. That’s what their traffickers and perpetrators did.
Stereotypes and over-simplifications create emotional distance, and we can’t actually do the work we do if we’re insulated in this way. Looking in from the outside of a person’s life, it’s possible to make assumptions about what they need or want. By moving in closer and actually knowing people — their backgrounds, their personalities, their cultures, their feelings — we find again and again that there is no formula for recovery, no stereotypical victim. We are willing to let go of what’s expected to listen for what is actually needed.
Compassion zooms in.
For us, trafficking and exploitation will never be simply issues to combat or causes to rally around. A young girl wearing the number 146 made it personal. When we took her number as our name, we decided what kind of eyes we were going to use as an organization. The compassion we choose to cultivate doesn’t buy into the luxury of seeing the world through clean-cut statistics, labels, or categorizations. It sees faces.
Compassion refuses quick fixes.
When someone’s in pain, sometimes our instinct is to be reassuring, to tell them it will be alright, that everything happens for a reason. No matter how well-intentioned, this kind of comfort springs from a desire to protect ourselves. When I’ve been in pain, people who have had ‘right answers’ like these have rarely been the people I’ve wanted to be around. What I most appreciated was when people said, ‘Man, I don’t have any answers, but I’m with you.’ Being compassionate often involves sitting with the discomfort of not knowing what to do. Deep pain deserves more than quick fixes. Our work with survivors takes time. We don’t believe in trying to churn people through a program, so we make it clear that there is no established timeline of recovery, that we don’t expect them to stop needing help when they turn 18 or 21, that it’s okay if they feel the same feelings two times or a hundred times.
Compassion can make us feel useless.
The closer we get to someone’s suffering, the fewer words we find. Our answers seem fragile. Our actions seem insufficient.
… But compassion can be a motivator.
Eventually words, answers, and actions do come. Love146 takes shape as our staff and supporters figure out how to respond to the compassion they feel. It’s led some people on our programs team to dream about getting bicycles for the young people we serve. It’s inspired creative fundraisers across the U.S. It recently prompted a staff member to speak up against faulty statistics that hide the truth.
This love came with a wound. (Today, I remember that “vulnerability” means woundability.) Our work leads us there every day, to places where words and solutions and answers fail. Our instinct tells us to turn around and leave — anything to feel in control once again and keep us safe from “full immersion in the condition of being human.” Instead, we take a deep breath, quiet down, and wade in.