My most popular blog posts have been the ones where I hit some kind of nerve in people, such as when I opened up about my devastation over a loved one’s suicide, or when I spoke of how I have figured out what mindfulness means in this chaotic, imperfect life of an entrepreneurial mom. I think the reason people can relate is because you get it – you have experienced grief, or you fear the hold depression can have on you or someone you love, or you feel like life is so crazy busy that while you know you need to slow down and pay attention, and cut down on your stress, you figure it is an unattainable goal for the next 10-30 years. You relate to some of my fears and pain. You can empathize.
Empathy is the feeling we have when we can imagine being in someone else’s shoes. You think, “gosh, that is really rough, I’d be a basket case.” Something about that person’s situation struck a chord with you. It is a valuable, and in terms of social emotional learning, mature response, as it gives us the opportunity to take the next step, which would be to feel compassion. Compassion is when we take that empathy and actually act on it. Empathy is passive, whereas compassion is when we say, “gosh, that really sucks, I’d be a total mess, and I’m going to do something to help them feel less alone.”
Wouldn’t it be totally awesome if our kids not only learned empathy but also became compassion warriors?
On a Wednesday last month (May), I was invited to be a guest (spectator) at an incredible event at a middle school in Montvale, NJ, called the Three R’s: Respect, Reflect & Remember. For a full school day, the entire school body listened to 35 speakers who had experienced tragedy and injustice of the worst kind imaginable, and had found the strength to not only survive the pain but to now address audiences in an effort to educate them about respect, compassion, resilience. Mark Barden, whose son was murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting; Haider Mamza, who grew up in Iraq in the midst of the war and is now a journalist working on humanizing war; Eliot Hermon, who fought during WWII and whose troop suddenly came upon a Nazi concentration camp and liberated the Jews; David Kaczynski, who ended up realizing that his brother, whom he had always admired and loved, may be the “Unabomber,” and ended up turning him in to the FBI; Allyson Pereira, who stupidly texted her ex-boyfriend a topless photo of herself, in the hopes that he would like her again, only to have it spread like wildfire, leading to horrible bullying which led to her suicide attempt; Joseph Sebarenzi, whose parents, siblings, and most friends and extended family were massacred during the Rwanda genocide; Arno Michaelis, who for 7 years spread hate as a white supremacist and now writes and teaches love and acceptance… These were just some of the people I met and listened to as they kept middle schoolers riveted with their stories of desperation, and eventually, hope.
Mr. Hermon passionately and angrily spoke of the devastation and cruelty of war, and bluntly told the students that if they ever think there is anything glorious or heroic about war, they were being stupid and naïve, that it is to be avoided at all costs. He then described what it was like when he and his fellow soldiers came upon a concentration camp and the horrors they saw, the lack of humanity and the realization that people could be so sub-human in their treatment of others. Tears pouring down my own face, watching this man relive, before our eyes, something that he had experienced over 70 years ago, I watched the reactions of the kids. There was not a dry eye in the room. Boys were reaching for tissues.
When Arno talked about his childhood as the bus bully and the power he felt from it, his apathy toward any punishment from the principal, eventually becoming a leader in hatred toward anyone who wasn’t white, male, heterosexual and Christian, and eventually what led to his transformation and the way he now looks back on those difficult years – the kids were really paying attention. They will probably never forget the lessons of that day, and even if they forget the specifics in the stories, they will not forget the emotion behind each story, and within their own reactions.
This is a news story on the event if you’re curious:
So I write about this today because since then, I have been reminded several times, either because of the Facebook posts I see about celebrities crossing to another gender, or posts about political candidates standing for certain controversial policies, or because I have heard of kids at school (elementary through high school) making comments about classmates, celebrities, and politicians, who are not like them (Caucasian, presumably heterosexual, presumably Christian or at least not Jewish, etc.).
The thing is, that it is easy to coast in life, to be in autopilot and stay there until there is a crisis. The crisis could be personal (heart attack) or in the relationship (affair) or in the family (addiction) or in the community (school shooting) or in the country (recession). It’s human nature to keep the status quo, because that is the easier path. Unfortunately, though, whether we are dealing with our individual, family, relationship, community, societal health – if we are not proactive in prevention, then we are by default falling into disease.
If, as parents and adults in the community, we are not intentionally working toward modeling empathy and compassion for our children, and placing an emphasis on valuing kindness toward others, we are effectively leading our children into apathy, intolerance, and even hatred. It is not good enough to merely refrain from disparaging other cultures, races or religions. We cannot assume that our kids will be accepting of others just because we don’t make racist jokes. We need to go further than that and urge them to learn about other cultures, to think about what it may be like to be the only child in the grade with dark skin, or what it may be like to grow up knowing that you were assigned the wrong gender at birth, or how hard it must be when your parents are unable to buy you most of what your friends are wearing or driving. We need to be mindful of how we are discussing our political and religious views, and perhaps even ask ourselves why we believe this way, and are we encouraging our children to think for themselves?
Let’s do this before another crisis.
P.S. Unbeknownst to me, while I was finishing up this post, my friend and colleague was writing her own. Please read this. The fact that we both posted on the same day and had no idea we were writing about the same subject tells me the status quo needs to be shifted.
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.