Today in my social media stream, a trending story described a young boy who asked his mother to buy a fast food dinner for a man who appeared wanting for food. I thought, especially given our experience the other day, this was a very poignant re-reminder of the nature of children.
On one hand stories like these should be shared; on the other, anyone who has had the privilege of caring for young kids will not be surprised. Children everywhere, of every race and creed and socioeconomic stripe, possess a wonderful, humane sense of justice. They advocate for fairness, generosity, and measured empathy at a startlingly young age – and keep these qualities far longer that you’d think they could. We’d do well to learn from children, rather than school them in the ways of isolation, fear, deprivation, martyrdom, apathy – well, you know the rest.
I do not find it accurate, nor find much use for, the concept that children are inferior beings, or in some way untenably naive, or “half-formed”. Adults’ play at sophistication and adult “freedom” is nothing more than a charade, where we wave our arms about and holler in an attempt to pretend, to other adults, that we aren’t afraid of anything. It’s a heartbreaking game, really, but it’s silly too. We only keep up the pretense around other grownups. The story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” takes on quite a bit of meaning when it comes to our inner lives, don’t you think?
Most children are demonstrably in touch with qualities we come to wish we had, the older we get. If one lives long enough, sooner or later we come to a place where we remember something from our childhood, some quality we had – or perhaps a habit we lacked – and we will wonder how we changed, and feel some regret, some sadness. Remember how fearless I was in this regard? Remember how kind I was, without prejudice? Remember how easily I could feel happiness – and how openly I expressed sadness? Remember how quick I was to forgive? Remember how deeply I loved?
The really wonderful thing is, we can return to our childhood. There is no going back, and often there is no forgetting the past. But all the same, we can “become like little children”, as Jesus said, and inherit our spiritual kingdom. We can learn to be fair, to be kind, and to consider the feelings and experiences of other sentient beings.
Ah yes… empathy. Spiritual exercises can restore us empathy – and the restoration of empathy can be quite a wild ride! Fortunately, our adult mind – and the adult virtue of patience – can help us navigate our responsibilities when this new awareness threatens to overcome us. In fact, years ago one of my mentors told me this: that as I progressed spiritually, there would come a time I would behold so much suffering, waves and waves of suffering, and my heart would swell and break. Neither she nor I knew it at the time, but she’d just described the experience of Compassion – which means, “to suffer with or alongside”.
Re-learning empathy has not struck me dead. It has not made me suddenly unable to work, or pay bills, or speak in a social setting – although all of my life has been profoundly affected. Empathy has caused me to look deeper, and deeper still. Can I experience empathy for other peoples, even ones who seem like villains? Can I experience empathy for the animals in my life, and the animals exploited on our earth? What will happen if I open myself to these experiences? How will I clothe myself? How will I protect myself? How will I eat? How will I pay rent? How will I survive?
Remember… none of us survive.
It seems obvious now why so many people actively resist empathy. It can be a very scary path to consider. A “slippery slope”, as they say.
Tonight I ask you: who do you struggle with, when it comes to empathy? Who – an individual, or a class or category of person, or a class or category of animal, do you feel fear, and anger, when you think on them? Write these entities down. Just one or two, to start with.
I’ll do the same – and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.