You know that saying – “Insanity is hereditary, you get if from your kids”?
Well, I think I inherited compassion from my daughter.
Until recently it was widely believed (in Western cultures anyway) that babies were born innately selfish, that it was our moral duty as parents to turn them from self obsessed little savages into beings fit for human society, through training them with reward and punishment. It seemed to make sense – after all, newborns are famously demanding in getting their own needs met no matter how exhausted their parents.
Now science is finding that even very young babies have the building blocks of empathy, showing a preference for helper characters rather than hinderers in scenarios demonstrated with puppets and even just with shapes. By toddlerhood, their empathy has become altruism, where they will interrupt an enjoyable activity to assist people who seem to be having a problem, for example in picking up a dropped pen. It seems we really are wired to help others.
The kicker seems to be that having their own needs met – being shown empathy – strengthens their ability to empathise. If being on the receiving end of compassion can reinforce the outward expression of empathy and compassion in babies, what can it do for adults in our ‘looking after number one’ culture?
Zoe may have been a child with a finely tuned sense of empathy and compassion from birth (she would help to feed babies their bottle at daycare before she could even walk), but I believe her experience with cancer and the empathy and compassion she received from those who surrounded us at that time made her even more sensitive to others feelings – and more inclined to reach out to them with compassion.
The kindnesses we received at that time were countless. Friends, acquaintances and strangers rallied around. Toys, food, flowers, gifts of all descriptions just started arriving and the Child Cancer Foundation provided practical help we hadn’t even thought of.
In the beginning I was embarrassed and overwhelmed with people’s generosity. I also worried (and it seems so ridiculous now when I would give her everything I could) that Zoe would be “spoiled” by the gifts. But no, she just understood that all these tokens were expressions of empathy. In her eyes, the nurses loved us, people, the world was a good place where even strangers wished us well. And it was natural to her not only to want to return the favours and affection but to listen for others feelings and pay the love forward. One of her favourite activities at this time was to have me crouch behind the couch or at the end of the hospital bed and use her soft toys as puppets acting out their feelings and helping each other. Watching how Zoe’s spirit blossomed, even as her body struggled with cancer and cancer treatment, changed something in me too.
Before this, I considered myself a pretty independent person, who certainly didn’t need any charity or help. This was probably why I had struggled to deal with a refluxy baby who did not sleep. I felt I should just be doing and coping with everything myself and not admit that I was exhausted and depressed. I was one of those parents constantly on edge thinking my job was to ‘train’ my child.
But at some point, I just made a decision to say yes to the help that was offered and the gifts people gave us when they didn’t know what else to do. What those gifts were really saying was, “We hurt with you. We wish we could make this cancer go away. We know a teddy bear won’t do it, but it’s the only thing we can think of doing.”
I’m not exaggerating when I say that making that simple decision to say yes changed my life. I let go of guilt, I let go of feeling that I was unworthy and undeserving. I let myself feel the love that was inherent in every sticker book and batch of baking that was given to us. I started to ignore all the ‘shoulds’ of parenting and began parenting by heart.
The next step was inevitable. Like Zoe, having been on the receiving end of compassion, I learned to push past my comfort zone and reach out to others with the same sense of compassion. I stopped trying to teach my child to grow into a better person and let her teach me to be a better person.
Most dictionaries define sympathy as being a feeling of pity or sorrow for another person’s situation, and empathy as the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and feel what they are feeling. Some dictionaries describe compassion as being interchangeable with empathy, which makes sense, since the roots of the word compassion literally mean “suffer with.”
Other definitions however make a slight distinction. Compassion, they say, is empathy accompanied by the urge to take action to alleviate someone else’s pain.
All of these have their place. Sympathy is sometimes all we are capable of. Empathy is a gift. To have someone simply listen to, feel and sit with your pain is itself enormously healing. I’m not a natural at it, but I’m better than I was. Compassion is something I now actively look for opportunities to express, both as part of The Angel Zoe Kindness Project and in my every day life. I don’t always succeed at it, but I hope I’m getting better.
And if I could learn compassion from Zoe, who might I pass it on to? And who might they pass it on to? I don’t really believe it’s hereditary. It’s contagious. Pass it on.
This post is part of the 1000 voices for compassion project #1000speak