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Henri Nouwen Learns Lesson About Compassion

One of the most vivid memories from my youth is connected with a little goat given to me by my father to care for during the last year of the Second World War. The goat's name was Walter. I was thirteen years old then, and we lived in a part of Holland that was isolated by the great rivers from the D-Day armies. People were dying of hunger.

I loved my little goat. I spent hours collecting acorns for him, taking him on long walks, and playfully fighting with him, pushing him where his two horns were growing. I carried him in my arms, built a pen for him in the garage, and gave him a little wooden wagon to pull. As soon as I woke up in the morning, I fed him, and as soon as I returned from school I fed him again, cleaned his pen, and talked to him about all sorts of things. Indeed, my goat Walter and I were the best of friends.

One day, early in the morning when I entered the garage, I found the pen empty. Walter had been stolen. I don't remember ever having cried so vehemently and so long. I sobbed and screamed from grief. My father and mother hardly knew how to console me. It was the first time that I learned about love and loss.

Years later, when the war was over and we had enough food again, my father told me that our gardener had taken Walter and fed him to his family who had nothing left to eat. My father knew it was the gardener, but he never confronted him—even though he saw my grief. I now realize that both Walter and my father taught me something about compassion.

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