I’ve been thinking a lot about selflessness and compassion. Because of the Syrian refugee crisis, because of the Black Lives Matter movement, because of Hurricane Matthew ravaging Haiti, because of the presidential race. I’ve shaken my head, rolled my eyes, blinked back tears far too many times lately. And what shocks and upsets me most is not the tragedy or injustice, but the reaction – or lack of reaction – from people I know, people I like, people I used to respect.
I wonder sometimes, what went wrong? What are these otherwise normal – and at times exceptional – people missing that lets them brush off pain and suffering, lets them defend injustice, lets them ignore bigotry?
And in contrast, what influence or influences nurtured compassion and kindness in the people I admire? How did I (not to sound full of myself – because I know I’m desperately flawed) turn out so darn nice? Why am I, and many, capable of feeling and caring about the pain of people we’ve never met? Is there a magic ingredient that, mixed in the dough of our psyche, bakes into awareness and empathy?
I’d really like to know. I really want to feed that ingredient to my kids. And their entire generation.
And as I wondered about this, I got ready for the monthly #booksforbetter Twitter chat hosted by All the Wonders (where I’m a contributor.) The theme was, coincidentally enough, “books that nurture empathy.” And I thought about the books I’d read as a child that let me put myself in someone’s else’s shoes. Books that stuck with me all these years…
The Velveteen Rabbit…Horton Hears a Who…The Story of Ferdinand…
Was that it? Was that truly enough? Reading the right books, a broad swath of books, books that help the reader see inside others’ souls and comprehend our shared humanity? It seemed like a possibility…it certainly made sense in my case. But then again, my own husband is one of the kindest people I know, and he could not by any stretch be classed as an avid reader. I’m constantly taken aback by all the books he DIDN’T read as a child. (Why do I think everyone I like has read the same books I have?)
But I digress. Let’s get back to the #ATWChat. It was an amazing conversation with a diverse group of teachers, librarians, publishers, parents, authors and bloggers discussing the ways books touch children’s lives and nurture empathy. You can read the transcript here if you’re interested – it’s a treasure trove of ideas and book recommendations for all ages. But the whole time, that little doubt was nibbling away at me. What about the kids who didn’t read, but still turned out great? What was their secret?
And as I wondered, the host asked the third discussion question: “How can we extend messages of empathy learned from books into real life activities and actions?”
And amidst the answers, there was one word that kept repeating:
A3 Listen. Reading is a form of listening to someone’s story. Practice listening in real life. Underestimated & powerful skill
And that’s when it struck me how closely related READING and LISTENING are. Maybe that isn’t surprising to you. But I, for one, hadn’t linked them together before. And certainly not as two skills that, alone or together, are bound to engender empathy.
When we read deeply, the characters become real and important to us. When we listen, truly listen, the person speaking becomes real and important. And as we practice and spend a lifetime becoming better readers and better listeners, we are able to generalize that skill – that ability to feel the realness and importance of others’ lives – beyond the page or voice closest to us. We recognize that lives far different from ours and people far away from us are as human and special and valuable as our own selves. And once someone is real and important, we cannot ignore their pain, we cannot forget injustice done to them, we cannot betray their humanity.
I know I’m just scratching the surface. There’s much more to the origin of kindness and compassion than I can begin to cover here. But it’s enough to start with.
As I go forward from today, I promise to listen carefully and to read deeply. And I promise to teach my children to do the same. I promise to model these skills, by letting my kids see me reading, by really listening to what they have to say, by demonstrating compassion and kindness in daily life. And I hope that you choose to do the same. The more caregivers who encourage and MODEL reading and listening, the more compassionate the next generation becomes.
Nurture the readers. Nurture the listeners. Theirs are the big hearts. And the future depends upon them.