One day while I was in graduate school I and my fellow students were waiting for our 70-year-old professor to show up for class. This man was never late, he had a military precision about him, he was very orderly. Ten minutes into our scheduled class time we became worried. Where was Dr. S? Moments later he staggered into our classroom all bedraggled. His comb over was combed the wrong way, his shirt was only partially tucked, and there were dirt stains on his face and clothing. He looked like he’d been mugged or something.
“Dr. S! What happened to you? Are you alright?” we asked. He told us his tale.
“I was walking to school like I normally do. There were about a dozen other students walking near me. All of a sudden I slipped on a sandwich in a plastic bag and down I went. I knocked myself out completely when my head hit the pavement. When I woke up I could see that 10 minutes had passed. Not one single person stopped to help me. Students were all around me and they just stepped over me or past me.” Tears welled up in his eyes. “I don’t understand it. You see a man fall down and knock himself out and you just walk right past him? What’s happened to the youth of America today?”
None of us really knew what to say. We were appalled on his behalf. I imagined my sweet, dear old professor lying passed out on the hard concrete and people just walking past him like he didn’t exist. It was sad indeed.
We encouraged our professor to go home and see his doctor. As he left our classroom he was shaking his head in disbelief. I couldn’t believe it either. Can you imagine seeing someone slip, fall and pass out in front of you and ignoring it?
I was thinking about this story the other day as I drove my kids to school. I dropped Kyle off in his preschool room and went to put his lunch away in a different room. On my way back down the hall I peeked through the window into his classroom to see what he was up to. At that moment, a plastic tugboat fell off a shelf and onto a little girl’s head. She started crying immediately. What I saw next fascinated me.
There were about 6 kids in her vicinity. When the little girl started to cry they all perked their ears and turned to see. Immediately, they all went towards her. One kid started patting her on the shoulder. Another kid picked up the offending tugboat and put it securely back on the shelf. Another child leaned in to kiss her boo boo. One kid ran to get the teacher and tell her about his injured classmate. My son scrinched up his face in empathy and leaned in to give her a hug after the other child was done kissing her boo boo.
I witnessed a spontaneous and immediate display of empathy and compassion in these children. It felt so tribal. When one member of the tribe was injured the other members sprang into action. Each child helped in a different way. They continued to support her until she stopped crying, and only then did they meander back to their own toys. It was a beautiful display of compassion.
So what happens between age 4 and 18? Do kids lose their sense of compassion and empathy? When does life inure youngsters to the pain and suffering of others? None of those preschoolers had to stop and help that child, it looked very instinctual to me. And yet none of the college students stopped to help my professor when he took his fall. I have to wonder what people were thinking as they stepped past him. I’m sure there were some college students that would have stopped to help Dr. S., perhaps even have called an ambulance, but apparently none of those rare breed were walking near him that day.
My daughter is 8 years old right now and I know she still has the compassion gene turned on. I keep watch though. Compassion and empathy are near and dear to me and I won’t let them slip from my children easily. I’d like to think that when my kids are 18 they will still stop to help someone in need. Hey, you’re never too old to kiss someone’s boo boo or offer a supportive and caring hug.
Is compassion and empathy still alive and well in you? Find a way to demonstrate it today.
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
– Dalai Lama