I know a father who every night before his children go to sleep whispers in their ear: your destiny is to save the world. I asked him if he thought that perhaps he expects too much from his children.
“We have to. Greatness can only be achieved by striving for the impossible.”
Since he spends much of his life on airplanes, lecturing around the world, one day his son had the insight to sit up and reply: “No Dad, my destiny is to save you.”
When I was a child I did want to save the world (or perhaps I had shadow aspirations of ruling the world). Around the age of thirteen, older and wiser, I came to the conclusion that if I wanted the world to be a better place, I would have to become a more compassionate person. 10,863 days later little has changed. I still go to bed hoping that tomorrow I will be a more compassionate person. I refer to compassion in relation to its Greek and Latin origins which means to suffer or endure with somebody else, or put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. It has nothing to do with pity, which is the definition you will find in the Oxford dictionary. Compassion requires imagination - and it’s a very tricky business.
Take love, compassion’s fearless, and sometimes reckless, sidekick. Love in its many faceted forms is a wonderful thing. But the Beatles got it wrong. If I were to choose the single most important quality to instill in my children it wouldn’t be love: it would be self-esteem. Without self-esteem you will love for all the wrong reasons: for money, or looks, or status, or to play out the unresolved drama of your childhood. If our children are to create a civilized society they must be raised to believe they possess good qualities and that they can use these qualities to build a better world. They must learn to love themselves, and as parents we must also exhibit self-love. It is impossible to have compassion for another if you do not first have compassion for yourself.
Even very young children are capable of some form of compassion. As my three year old recently told her dad: “ You are not as smart as Mom, but you are very strong.”
Our five year old son is equally capable of empathy. While attempting to hurriedly prepare lunch, I tossed a rubber lid onto a pot of water to hasten the boiling. Sitting at the table, he watched it melt down the side: a gooey, blue, flammable mess. “Mom, that was a dumb thing you did, but don’t worry I have done lots of dumb things in my life too.” Trying to nurture my own compassion, I did not ask him to enumerate all the dumb things he could remember in his lifetime.
So much in life is a given: our genes, our upbringing, our socioeconomic status. We didn’t get to choose any of it. We are tortured by our own inadequacies and shortfalls, particularly in the Western world: a culture where many of our maladies reflect an underlying self-loathing and yearning for control. If we can embrace our own inadequacies there is also hope that we can embrace the inadequacies of others, knowing that they too have been formed by circumstances beyond their control. This includes our children. At times, the penny drops, and we note that the behaviours we do not like in our children are really behaviours that we do not like in ourselves. Being kinder to ourselves will allow us to be kinder with our children.
You cannot rip the skin off a snake without killing it, but in time it will shed its own skin. Fear, flight, foraging for food, and that other f word are our old snake brains at work. But we possess a larger, newer neocortex. From this place emanates compassion. If we cannot inspire ourselves to act from a higher level than we cannot inspire our children either. And all those dreams of saving the world will be dashed.
A great place to nurture compassion for yourself, children, and the earth is underneath the big cottonwood tree in the Eco Garden. The Little Sprouts program runs every Thursday morning during July and August. The memories of sitting under that tree on a perfect summer day will remain with me long after my children have left to pursue their destiny. The rustling of the poplar leaves, children giggling, the smell of the dirt, and the warmth of the sun will remain a comb of perfection in my ever so honeyed life. For more information go to www.ekkids.ca