Compassion By Design

The weight of other people’s suffering can be palpable, whether someone weeping in the next room or someone in agony across the globe. How do we go about our own lives knowing others are in anguish at the same moment? This question has haunted me, especially in my growing up years. I suspect such questions weigh more on children than we imagine.

By the time I was eight or nine years old, my parents had cancelled their subscriptions to news magazines because they couldn’t deal with repeated questions like, “Why is that village burning? Who hurt that man? Why isn’t someone helping that baby?” Even the most well-intentioned adult would rather not think about such questions, let alone answer them. Try to explain war to a child. No matter how you skew it, the answer comes down to whoever destroys more property and kills more people, wins. Try explaining poverty or prejudice to a child. It’s impossible to morally justify the indifference and greed that helps to prop up “normal” life in the face of truly open, honest questions.

Starting in babyhood, most children express empathy as well as a sense of connection to the natural world.  Many children, including some we call “gifted” and some we call “neurodiverse” are more strongly motivated by the search for justice, mercy, equality, and truth than by more superficial adult concerns like polite behavior.

Even new arrivals to the planet demonstrate this. By six months of age, babies show empathy for those who have been treated unfairly. Concern for others starts on day one. When hearing recorded cries, one-day old newborns are more likely to cry when hearing a recording of another baby crying than their own cries. Newborns also show more intense and longer-lasting distress when listening to others’ cries. This effect doesn’t diminish. Studies show babies continue to react with distress to other’s cries at one, three, six, and nine months.

As children show us, this is quite naturally who we are. Kindness is the way our species evolved. According to anthropologist Douglas Fry, author of Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace,  for 98 percent of our human existence on earth we lived in small nomadic bands that did not make war, thriving precisely because our kind relied on cooperation and collaboration. The oldest and most longstanding child-rearing practices still support this way of being.

Historian Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind: A Hopeful History, says in a recent interview, “If I say most people are pretty decent that may sound nice and warm but actually it’s really radical and subversive and that’s why, all throughout history, those who have advocated a more hopeful view of human nature – often the anarchists – have been persecuted.”

Greed, and violence are not “human nature.”  We flourish best with gentle nurturance and ongoing cooperation.  Even our bodies are cued for compassion. In fact, research tells us our bodies pump out oxytocin when we’re stressed. Normally we think of it as a love hormone. It is. It prompts us to connect with and support one another. As we reach out, our bodies react with more oxytocin, helping us recover while strengthening relationships.

We are in a time of intense reexamination brought about by an unchecked global pandemic, systemic oppression, and ecosystem destruction.When we wall off our feelings of outrage, shame, and despair we’re walled off from ourselves.  It’s time to recognize the collective weight of suffering. Time to truly to listen to each other. This starts with the questions children ask, often the largest questions.

As Tobin Hart writes in The Secret Spiritual World of Children, our wide-awake presence in the lives of children “reminds us to listen for inner wisdom, find wonder in the day, see through the eye of the heart, live the big questions, and peer into the invisible. “

25 Ways To Spread Some Kindness

Image: SweetOnVeg’s flickr photostream

1. Take your compliments about an employee to management. Chances are you’ll never see the impact. Chances are, it’ll be greater than you imagine.

2. Give up a great parking space for the car behind you. Parking farther away simply gives you more exercise.

3. Call an elderly relative or neighbor once a week to chat. You may think you’re enriching that person’s life. They’re enriching yours too.

4. Hold the door open for the person behind you.

5. Write a thank you note. To see the powerful impact this practice can have, check out A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life.

6. Write an anti-thank you. Sure, it seems counter-intuitive but it’s a way of using a  negative experience to help others.

7. Leave money in vending machines, especially in hospitals and detention centers.

8. Leave a positive review for a local business on Merchant Circle, ThinkLocal, or Yelp.

9. Listen. You know how it feels when someone really listens to you. They look into your eyes, they react to your words, and you feel understood. Check your listening skills against the Scale of Attuned Responses.

10. Research shows that newborns bond with parents using scent. Help out by knitting or crocheting a crib blanket via Blankets For Deployed Daddies. The new dad transfers his scent by sleeping with it in his pillowcase for several nights, then sends it home in a sealed bag.

11. Give genuine compliments. You might want to challenge yourself to give compliments to five or ten people a day. It keeps you on the lookout for truth and beauty. Tell a clerk she has a lovely voice, a child that his smile made your day, a loved one that their eyes are beautiful.

12. That kid who keeps hanging around, looking as you grill dinner or wanting to talk while you wash the car? He may be longing for encouragement. Even a few kind words may be the kind of mentoring he needs.

13. Help budding entrepreners through Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Make your money go farther by lending to a Kiva project.

14. Greet new people on your street with a small gift such as a houseplant or plate of cookies. The neighbors you’ve never met? Try online resources to connect such as i-neighbors or front porch forum.

15. Give gifts that do some good.

16. See an act of aggression? Get involved even if it seems like none of your business. That’s a kindness too.

17. Set books free. Donate them to a good cause (a nearby school, your library’s book sale?) or leave them ala Book Crossing to find new readers.

18. Donate pet food to the nearest animal shelter. While you’re there, offer to walk a few dogs.

19. Patronize kids’ car washes and lemonade stands.

20. Be aware of newcomers to your workplace, school, church or other organization. Make a point of greeting them and introducing them to others.

21. Keep duplicates of your child’s toys and books in the diaper bag. When you encounter fussy children, offer an extra to their parents.

22. Smile. Find out 10 ways this face stretcher benefits you as well as those on the receiving end.

23. Donate blood. One pint of blood can save up to three lives.  

24. Designate a tiny container as your family’s Pass It Forward box. Tuck it somewhere one member of the family will find it (under the bed pillow works) with a little surprise inside (a loving note, a handmade coupon for an unexpected perk, some chocolates, a drawing, a map of a place you’re going that day, a compliment). That person is expected to put something else in the box and leave it for another family member, so kindness can circle around and around.

25. Set a good example, be kind to yourself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTXMTptqGwI

=