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. “