Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Is Compassion Worth a Dime?

That face keeps coming back to me from the newspaper photo. That tear-streaked, chin puckered, lips turned down at the corner anguished little boy’s face. The one inside a shelter that was supposed to be safe from attack—but was not.

What do we do when that little boy, his parents and others are so far from being safe, even for a day? I try to understand that both sides, though so unevenly matched in firepower, are essentially terrified and feeling unsafe. How can they feel safe?
There are peaceful political solutions that could honor both heritage and freedom. They are out of reach because fear is trumping compassion, and compassion is the glue that holds humanity together. Its absence tears us and our world apart.

Given the seeming enormity of human conflict and problems, where do we gain a foothold in expressing our own compassion?

My good friend Don Eaton in Santa Fe, New Mexico has a non-profit organization called Small Change whose efforts to teach compassion and facilitate compassion in action are distinctive in that Don talks about two kinds of hunger, the hunger of the heart/spirit and the hunger of the body.
Don and his board are committed to the belief that each of us can do something about both kinds of hunger. They address the first with
programs, events and projects that inspire, empower, challenge and educate people to make small changes in thought, word, and action, to grow in compassion for themselves, others, and the earth. They reach people through concerts (including house concerts), retreats, seminars, and lectures. Don writes and records original songs and produces CDs that help inspire and encourage people to be "compassion in action."

At each of these events they hope that what is said, what is sung about, and what is discussed will create in people a desire to make small changes in their own lives to "be compassion" in the world. At each of the events and programs people are asked to make one small change, which is to save their small change (coins) for hunger relief. People are asked to save and donate their small change to Small Change. Every cent saved goes to direct hunger relief. The small change donated to this Hunger Fund is used to supply relief agencies with oral rehydration salt packets (ORS), (each costing about a dime!) to help save the lives of people who would otherwise die from the dehydration that accompanies starvation. An encouraging quote from the website is:
Remember, "No one makes a bigger mistake than the person who does nothing because they can only do a little."

There are many people, organizations, and services that exemplify compassion in action. You may contribute to or be one of them.
How do we create more of us and reach critical mass in the larger world?
As an educator, I know it begins with parents and teachers.
When my wife was an elementary school principal, one way she enjoyed spending time with students was to join them in forming a “Kindness Club.”
Kids would make a list of different “random acts of kindness,” then formulate ways they could have fun carrying them out. And they did! They never seemed to run out of things to do with and for each other.

What about at home, the place we create new generations of compassionate adults?

Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education heads the Making Caring Common project, a program teaching kids how to be kind. The group just released a new study in which 80% of the youth studied said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were three times more likely to agree that, “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”
Weissbourd and his group provide recommendations and five strategies for raising children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. I paraphrase here.

1. Make caring for others a priority.
Children need to hear from parents that caring for others is a top priority, and learn to balance their needs with the needs of others, honoring commitments made to others. Before quitting a team, band or friendship, parents can ask their children to consider their obligations to the group or friend and encourage them to work things out.
Make sure older children always address others respectfully, even when tired, distracted or angry.

2.  Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude.
Children need to practice caring for others and expressing gratitude for those who care for them and contribute to others’ lives. Studies show that people who are in the habit of expressing gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate and forgiving—and they’re also more likely to be happy and healthy. Learning to be caring is a practice and requires repetition to become second nature-- whether it’s helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, or having a classroom job.
Be careful not to reward every act of service or kindness your child performs, as it should be expected that these are just a part of life. Reward uncommon acts of kindness.
Make gratitude a daily ritual at dinnertime, bedtime or in the car. Express thanks for those who contribute to us and others in large and small ways.

3. Expand their circle of concern
The challenge is to help children learn to care about someone outside of their small circle of family and friends, such as the new kid in class, someone who does not speak their language, someone in a distant country.
Children need to learn to zoom in by listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, by taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. Especially in our more global world children need help in developing concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.
Use a newspaper or TV story to encourage your child to think about hardships faced by children in another country.

4.  Be a strong role model
Children learn values by watching the actions of adults and through thinking through ethical dilemmas with adults, e.g., “Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her or him?
Being a role model for compassion and kindness means to practice honesty, fairness and caring ourselves. It does not mean being perfect, it means acknowledging mistakes and flaws that help earn a child’s respect and trust. And we need to respect children’s thinking and listen to their perspectives, demonstrating to them how we want them to engage others.

5.  Guide children in managing destructive feelings.
Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy or other negative feelings.
We need to teach children that all feelings are OK, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways.
Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: Ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her or him getting upset remind him or her about the steps and do them with your child. After awhile they will start to do it on their own and be in a better place to express feelings in a helpful way.

It occurs to me that there is not one thing recommended for teaching kids compassion that does not apply to me. It’s important for me to take stock from time to time with regard to where I am with all this and be grateful I have the safety and the time to think and write this today. Oh, and yes, I think I can spare a dime.

Small Change organization website:
Don Eaton’s song “I Am One Voice”

Making Caring Common website:

Feeding and Being Fed- A Three Minute Video