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Compassion

Air Date: 12/14/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net. You may have seen those bumper stickers that say, "Perform random acts of kindness and senseless beauty." I've always liked the thought of people putting coins in expired parking meters, helping folks without expecting to get anything out of it, and generally acting with decency and kindness. My car broke down along a lonely stretch of highway years ago, before the age of the cell phone; I found a couple at home in a small house nearby and they spent their entire afternoon helping me get my car repaired. They also put me back on the road with lunch, a glass of fresh lemonade, and good conversation in the shade of an ancient, towering pine tree. They would accept no payment and wanted no thanks, telling me simply, "Just help someone else the next time you get a chance." Not long ago, I watched a man pay for the groceries of an elderly and rather threadbare woman in line ahead of him at our neighborhood grocery store. He specifically instructed the clerk not to tell her who had done it. The woman wept with gratitude and all of us who witnessed his act were touched by this stranger's generosity. What might the world be like if more of us behaved this way? Alfred Adler, one of the pioneers of family therapy, had a word for this sort of thing, one of those hefty German words that's so much fun to say. He called it "Gemeinschaftsgefühl." There is no exact translation into English, but a close approximation is "social interest" or "community feeling", a sense of connection to those around us. Adler used social interest as one measure of a person's emotional health. Healthy, productive people usually have strong ties to others and want to make a contribution. In fact, Adler believed that human beings have an inborn need for social interest and connection to something greater than oneself. So why is it, I often wonder, that so many of our children are self-centered and self-absorbed, show no empathy for the needs or feelings of others, whine for things they want (and there's always something new), and don't lift a finger to help someone else unless there's something in it for them? For that matter, why does it sometimes appear that even caring for those who are struggling is "enabling"? Does compassion matter these days? There are many young people who go out of their way to help others--and not just because it looks good on a college application. They do volunteer work, tutor struggling students, and coach sports teams. But there are many others who do not. Like most character qualities, kindness, gratitude, generosity, and compassion don't just happen--they must be taught. I happen to believe that this world could use a little more kindness and compassion. And I wonder how many of our children have the opportunity to learn those qualities. As the old poem tells us, "Children learn what they live." I suspect that for many adults and children alike, it's more important to succeed, to have what you want right now, and to get where you're going as quickly as possible (no matter who you run over in the process). J.M. Barrie, the author of "Peter Pan" once said, "Always be a little kinder than necessary." Imagine what the world would look like if everyone lived by those words. You may not believe that compassion is important, in which case you can stop listening now. But if you believe that it is, how do you teach it to your children? Well, first let them see it in action. Listen carefully to your own words: do they convey respect for others and the desire for others to prosper? Are you kind and compassionate yourself? Do you give of yourself and whatever you have when you have the opportunity? Are you compassionate towards your children when they make mistakes? Second, recognize that empathy and understanding are abilities that must be cultivated. You can talk with your children about feelings, both their own and other people's. When you sit down to watch television or a movie, talk together about what the people in the story are feeling and why. If what happens in the story violates your own beliefs, explore with your children what should have happened instead and ways they might make a difference. Third, create opportunities for your children to experience the joy and satisfaction that come from helping someone else. Visit a nursing home. Take outgrown toys and clothing to a shelter. Invite a friendless child over for the afternoon. Do something as a family that makes the world a better place, just because it seems like a good idea. And watch what happens to your children. You may just discover what Alfred Adler was talking about. This is not a world that rewards gentleness, sensitivity, or meekness. I have met parents who genuinely believed that it was necessary for their children to fear them and who were disappointed when their offspring had the temerity to display forbearance, patience, or kindness. Still, parents and teachers need to accept that we are training the children in our care to see the world as we see it. Compassion is a powerful agent of change. And tough as it may be to believe in this sometimes heartless world of ours, it truly is more blessed to give than to receive. Children do indeed learn what they live. It's up to us to shape the world they live in. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin