Lessons All Around Us

Why empathy and compassion matter-and one great example of a life lived according to those values.

There have been some events in the news and personally, that led me to remember how crucial it is for us, as educators, to teach to the hearts of children, even before we teach to their minds. Yes, it is vital for children to have the skills necessary to navigate in an increasingly complex world, but it is even more important that they keep their sense of humanity. The Wall Street debacle was created by highly educated people who allowed their greed to overcome their sense of compassion. Wars are often started and led by very well educated people, but the results are anything but smart. As actor Alan Alda once advised in a graduation speech to a medical school, we can never forget that the head bone is connected to the heart bone.

The first thing that happened to remind me of all this was very personal. A few weeks ago we got a call from a friend telling us that his wife, who was in her mid-fifties and in the prime of her life, had died very suddenly that day. Death is never very easy to take, but when it happens unexpectedly and to someone who seems healthy and primed for many more years, it is devastating to those who cared for them and who expected them to be a part of their lives.

What I was reminded of those first few days after getting the news was that,while we were devastated and our hearts had a huge empty space in them, the people we interacted with during the day-the store clerks, the lady at the bank, the waiter at dinner-had no idea that our world had shifted on its axis. It was a good reminder that we can never know the sorrow of another. In fact we often don’t even recognize it. So what should we do? I think the only thing we can do is try to remember that as the song says “everybody hurts.” That calls for all of us to live our lives with a better sense of compassion for others. A little kindness costs us nothing but would make everyone’s burden a bit lighter.

The other two reminders came to me through the news. The first were reports of “knockout” gangs who have been running up to strangers and without warning trying to knock them out. This apparently is done for the sheer sport of it and because someone decided it would be a cool thing to do. Setting aside for the moment the incredible potential danger of major harm this entails to the victim, what does it say about our culture that our youth (or at least some of them) think nothing of inflicting serious harm on someone else just for the thrill of it? When the skills of empathy and compassion were handed out, they apparently were somewhere else.

The other reminder came with the death of Nelson Mandela, an event that touched the whole world. Even though he had lived a full life and died at 95, it was still shocking and very, very sad. He had affected not only his own country but other countries around the world. He had stood as a beacon of reconciliation and forgiveness. He had shown the leaders of the world what a leader truly is. He was a very intelligent man but a man who led with his heart.

I have been lucky enough to visit South Africa three times and each time I learned more and more about him. I learned that he had saved his country by responding to the cruelty of apartheid with a handshake and a smile rather than a closed fist. I found it a sad statement about our own country that as President Obama was making way to the podium to offer a eulogy to Mandela he greeted other dignitaries on the podium with a handshake. Since one of them was Raul Castro of Cuba, this shocked and dismayed some of Obama’s critics in our country, as if a handshake is somehow a statement of support. I doubt if Mandela would have seen it that way.

I learned that Mandela had emerged from 27 years in prison with a heart full of forgiveness. Instead of retribution for the crimes against himself and his people, he found ways of bringing the people of South Africa together. He was once asked if he hated those who had imprisoned him. He replied that he did not because if he held hate in his heart he would still not be free. He befriended those who had hurt and imprisoned him and gave them the gift of grace.

I learned that when he met with leaders of his own country or leaders from other countries, he would often stop what he was doing to engage a waiter or a gardener in conversation about his or her family and their health, even if these people were total strangers to him.

On one of my trips we had a young African guide, Kenny, who had grown up in Soweto and had experienced apartheid as a child. He had then seen Mandela freed from prison and become president of the country. I asked him to tell me about Mandela. Kenny said, Well, you see it is like this. Some people see the glass as half empty. And some people see the glass as half full. And a very few just decide to fill the glass. That was Mandela. He was always filling the glass.

How do we work with our children so that they can learn that the best thing in life is to help others and in doing so to fill the glass? How do we help them understand that they need to meet their fellow man as a friend, with an open hand and an open heart rather than with a closed fist, ready for the knockout? How do we help them see beyond the surface of things to the hurt that lies within each of us? Creating schools where empathy and compassion are at the core of things should be the goal of every educator. That is a job worth doing. That is how we fill the glass.