Changing through the years

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
― Albert Einstein

I was a bit more stumped than usual about this month’s #1000Speak topic of Comapssion and Age. There were so many directions to wander off in. Most of us figure out, eventually, that we do not remain the same person throughout our lives. Physical growth brings many changes, as does the process of aging at the other end of the spectrum. Our brain chemistry changes, our experiences alter our responses, the path we take for spiritual/emotional growth impacts our choices and our responses. This is all a part of the larger package of living life.

Although there is much good, conflicting, research around all sides of the issue of compassion – and empathy – through various life stages, spiritual/emotional/psychological research is inherently limited. And humans are multidimensional beings, so we set ourselves – and others – up for failure when we look for perfectly consistent responses all of the time. What all of that means is that I don’t know. But now that I am old-not-old, I’ve amassed enough experience, and anecdotal evidence, that I’m reasonably comfortable offering up my thoughts – inexpert though they may be. So please take my stream of consciousness thoughts as what they are – just me, once again, trying to make sense of the universe.

“What does it mean to be compassionate? Not merely verbally, but actually to be compassionate? Is compassion a matter of habit, of thought, a matter of the mechanical repetition of being kind, polite, gentle, tender? Can the mind which is caught in the activity of thought with its conditioning, its mechanical repetition, be compassionate at all? It can talk about it, it can encourage social reform, be kind to the poor heathen and so on; but is that compassion? When thought dictates, when thought is active, can there be any place for compassion? Compassion being action without motive, without self-interest, without any sense of fear, without any sense of pleasure.” – J. Krishnamurti

So I’ll start with childhood. Certainly not an expert, but I was a child once, long ago, and I’ve had a couple – both very different in their levels of, and expressions of, compassion and empathy. I realize that my views on whether compassion is truly inherent are somewhat at odds with many of my compatriots, but the difference may really just be one of perspective and degree, and perhaps in the tendency to conflate empathy with compassion. I think that we all have the capacity for compassion, but that it needs to be taught, and that it, like all behaviors, is best taught, and encouraged, by modeling . Empathy, the more internalized, is inherent, but, for most of us, it requires a common thread, or shared experience for it to be triggered – it needs a frame of reference. Young children are quick to comfort a crying playmates, or to help a fallen friend get back up – or to reach out to a sad parent. And surely this is compassionate, and kind, behavior, but I think it is also borne of empathy. Young children, having limited experience, do easily empathize when something happens that hurts or upsets another because, in their universe, there are fewer possible causes – so they really do relate (even if their understanding of the true cause of the distress is wildly off-base). They feel your pain, physical or emotional, and, having few internal controls, act on that empathy by, quite literally, reaching out.

As we grow up, we also experience more of life, and we begin to conform to society’s demand that we control our impulses. Those two factors conspire to interfere with both our ability to empathize and to act compassionately. Having more experiences should make us more empathetic, but, those increased experiences also increase our knowledge that there are more reasons for suffering – and we have internalized enough of them that we know longer have that instinctive empathy that very young children have. Compassion, which is the compulsion to act, is dampened down by rules that make it ‘inappropriate’ to give the spontaneous hugs and cheek strokes that young children so freely provide. The older children grow, the more that is actively discouraged. And children do not instinctively know how to verbally express compassion and often lack the means or the skills to do much else without adult support or encouragement. We still feel sympathy, and we may still be kind, and that is all good, but there is more to compassion and empathy than sympathy and kindness.

Older children and adolescents are busy becoming independent beings, while finding how they fit in society. That sometimes makes them seem anything but compassionate. That should be where the adults come in – to model, to reinforce, to channel the swarm of feelings that come with that time of life into something positive. With my own children, I found that one was highly empathetic as a young child, and markedly less so as she got older, while my other one showed a disturbing lack of empathy as a young child, and possibly a surfeit as a teen. Both are compassionate, and have been raised in an environment that fostered that compassion. Care for animals, volunteering at food banks, and caring for the environment are some of the ways to encourage compassionate growth – there are many others. But it is on us, the busy adults in these children’s lives, to live the lives that we want them to live. They may not always listen to us, but they do see us, and they do hear us.

During the earlier stages of adulthood competing priorities sometimes make us downright oblivious to the needs of others – especially those outside of our immediate circle. We are simply too busy, and often too overwhelmed, with careers, marriage, parenthood, and life in general, to pay attention to any compassionate impulses. Sometimes we may assuage that need to do something, anything, by donating money, or food, or clothing, to this charity or that.

Then we start to age and something happens, often because our parents are also aging and we begin to see them as fragile. Those that were our rocks now need us, and our perspective changes again. We also may have more time now that our kids no longer require most of our energy and our careers are better established. We’ve been through more – directly and with our friends and family. Our ability to empathize becomes stronger – and we may have the time and energy required to heed our compassionate impulses. We are the sum of our experiences, and as we continue to age, those experiences further open up our ability to empathize. If we have the means, that empathy, and the compassion it engenders, leaves us more likely to spend our retirements volunteering or otherwise giving of ourselves as we leave the workforce and adjust to our new reality.

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
― Henri J.M. Nouwen

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