Becoming Compassionate

Jimmy wasn't considered to be a popular student in high school.  He had few friends and was from the less affluent side of town.  Jimmy and I were in the same grade.  I don't recall if he was bullied, but I also can't remember people being nice to him either.  Despite his pleasant affect, keen sense of humor and service to his community (he volunteered with the fire department) he was mostly "unnoticed".  I vividly recall walking to chemistry class one afternoon and down the hallway I could see Jimmy, clearly in distress on one knee outside of the boys' bathroom, getting sick.  And what for what seemed like an eternity, students just walked on by, either not noticing him or not caring enough to stop and see if he needed help.  Person after person.  Nobody noticed. Nobody helped.  They just walked right by.

Nate did stop.  He dropped his books, ran over to Jimmy, put his arm around him and asked for help from a gathering . Then another student stopped to help, and another, and another.  Within a minute, some students got Jimmy on his feet and into the bathroom.  A few students went to get a teacher.  Other students blocked off the area due to the mess on the floor.   It only took one person.  One person to notice someone was in need and to have the empathy to know that they needed help and the compassion to act on it. One person's act of kindness inspired many others to do the same.

It has been a long time since I graduated high school.  Despite the passage of time, I often think about that experience.  I can picture student after student walking by Jimmy, and then Nate rushing to his side causing a domino effect of compassion.  Why did Nate stop?  Why didn't one of those people who walked right by him stop?  The experience also reminds of the power that one person has to create change and inspire others to act with compassion.  Many of the people who passed him by were "good" people, yet they didn't stop to help.  What was happening at that moment that prevented them from doing so?  It is understandable that people, especially children, can become unsure how to respond in a situation like this.  It doesn't make them mean or unable to be compassionate,  just unsure.  Unsure what they can do to help,  if the person wants the attention of potential helpers, or how that person will respond by them offering help.

If you have never listened to NPR's TED Radio Hour, I encourage you to give it a shot.  Every Friday, a new episode is posted.  Previous episodes have covered a wide variety of topics, including: environmental issues, food, brain science, athletics, overcoming adversity.  This past week's episode, "Just A Little Nicer", explored the topic of compassion: can it be taught, the neuroscience that explains it, and are humans increasingly less able to demonstrate it.   Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who helped ignite an intelligence revolution with his book Emotional Intelligence, was featured in the show.  The latest research on social neuroscience, he reports, can explain why how in some moments we can be compassionate and while in other moments we are too self-absorbed to help others.   He shares a story of a man that he came across a "unnoticed" man in a subway stairwell that was clearly in need of help, and what happened after he stopped to provide assistance.  How he told the story took me right back to that high school hallway, remembering the story of an "unnoticed" student.

According to Goleman, the good news is that we can all become more compassionate.  We can teach ourselves, and our children, that through practicing kindness (ex: students writing positive messages to peers and adults in their lives) and mindfulness exercises (ex: breathing exercises, meditation) that take us out of our state's of self-absorption.  However, there is a major concern, that I think is shared by most of us who didn't have a cell phone until we were working adults.  How do we "transfer" to our children the skillsets needed to engage empathically with others when their primary form of communication takes place on a masked, sometimes anonymous, digital platform (texting, instagram, etc..) rather than face-to-face?  How this will impact the future of personal engagement, relationships and compassion won't be fully understood for years, if not generations.  Goleman ominously states, that with our increasing dependence on digital communication we are perhaps "starving the social brain" and engaging in an "unprecedented experiment with an entire generation." We are witnessing, he argues, our diminished cognitive ability to relate with others.

This may be our greatest challenge as educators in the 21st century: how to teach our children to be compassionate citizens in an era of virtual communication.

Daniel Goleman's interview, including brief excerpts from his popular TED talk, is linked below.