Monday, July 11, 2016

Creating Compassionate Kids In A Chaotic World

While I have had discussions on the issues of race, racism, injustice, poverty and the marginalization of people because of their race or sex or sexuality or nationality with Benjamin, it's been more of a challenge to have those types of talks with Cava. Coming from Ukraine, many of the issues of of race are completely foreign to him since he didn't grow up with other ethnicities. Since Cava is my alarm clock in the morning, he not only wakes me up so that I can fix him breakfast, but he also watches the news with me as I prepare his breakfast. Because of this, he has noticed what has been happening in our country and he doesn't understand and he has begun to ask me questions about what he's seeing.

It is heartbreaking and when I talk to him about it, Cava is baffled and asks, "Why would anybody choose to be mean?" Having come from a place that was often filled with cruelty and injustice, he is tender-hearted toward the hurting of others. There is a kindness and a light that the system he grew up in could not extinguish. This is one of the things I love most about him. So, as his father, I encourage such compassion in both him and Benjamin.

In Greek, the word for compassion is splagxnizomai, which means to be "moved to one's bowels." This is a graphic image but those who lived during the time of the New Testament believed the bowels were the root of all love and pity. This is a compassion that comes from deep within us and physically moves us to action. I cannot help but think of Jesus as he's written of in Matthew 9:36, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." Christ saw their suffering (not just physical but spiritual as well) and was full of compassion for them. This is a portrait of his Heavenly Father who's described in Psalm 86:15 as being "a God of compassion, and gracious, long-suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth." Along with compassion, in that verse is the Hebrew word hesed which is translated into English as "kindness" or "loving-kindness" or "mercy." This compassion moves beyond pity, beyond fear.

For there to be peace in the world, there must first be peace within us so that we can work from that place to facilitate love and compassion, patience and tolerance. To reach this place of peace takes humility and patience, not only with ourselves but with others. When we see human suffering, we cannot turn away from it but must view those suffering not as strangers or foreigners, but as fellow human beings in need of our compassion. As one of my heroes, the late Elie Wiesel said, "In the face of suffering, one has no right to turn away, not to see." No, it is not easy to look into the face of suffering but to do so is to look into the very face of Christ. Compassion was at the very heart and ministry of Christ. As his followers, we are to be and do likewise. But do we?

Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, "When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion - it's message becomes meaningless."

It's important that our churches practise acts of compassion, to be people of compassion, and that our children are a part of this process. We cannot speak of compassion from the pulpit if we are not putting words to action in the world around us. If we don't, our words are hollow and devoid or meaning. They are only "a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1). And our children will be the first to spot the hypocrisy of this. No, we must as 1 John 3:18 tells us, ". . .let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth."

Needless to say, love and compassion begins at home. This means we have to model compassion to our kids and to those in our community around us. To raise compassionate kids means we have to be compassionate adults. Kids learn by watching, so while we must talk to them about how we should respond to those who are in need, we should also be doing what we are telling them to do. This means we need to volunteer and, if the child is old enough, to have them volunteer with us. This can mean volunteering at a nursing home or a homeless shelter, reaching out to an elderly neighbor (mowing their yard, doing chores for them, taking them to the grocery store), being part of a canned-food drive, or have the whole family take part in a charity walk, or putting together their own shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child. These are all ways we can teach compassion for the vulnerable and powerless.

Talk to them. Whenever news stories come on about violence or suffering or cruelty, use that as an opportunity to both speak and listen to them talk about subject matters such as racism, discrimination, inequality, and, even, about bullying. Such news stories are teachable moments and allow us to get closer to our own kids, to help share our values and develop them in our children. One way we do this is in our daily lives is in our shopping. We make sure to teach them about fair trade and what that means and why we choose to buy or not buy an item, such  as chocolate, because of that.

For our family, we start with Jesus teaching the Sermon on the Mount and "Blessed are the peacemakers" It is so important to our faith that Jesus explicitly states that those who do "will be called the children of God." Why? Because when we make peace with those in our families, our communities, our nation and our world, we are exemplifying the kingdom of heaven. When Jesus taught us to pray, "On earth as it is in heaven," he meant we are to strive for that in the here and now.

When talking about being compassionate peace-makers, we must tell them that this is not always easy or admired or liked. Often it can make you unpopular. Compassion often takes courage.Of course it helps if they choose friends who are like-minded, caring and striving towards kindness. That they are the ones reaching out to those who are left out; to be a friend to the unfriended.

We must teach them is the understanding that showing compassion to others is not always easy. It means going to the places that we normally shy away from: places where people are weak, vulnerable, broken and lonely. To do this is to remove distance from those we might normally keep ourselves from coming into contact with. to be compassionate is to be connected. To have true compassion, one must create relationship. We see this time and time again in the life and ministry of Jesus. That is our example and our guide. He shows us that it is not enough to see someone suffering but to recognize that we are not separate from that suffering. Compassion works to transform that suffering no matter what the outcome.

It is a matter of teaching them that there are no "us" or "them." As Mother Teresa said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." Compassion leads to community and when we become a part of our community around us (our actual community and not just that of Facebook) we stop seeing people in terms of groups but in terms of personal stories. They have names and lives. We begin to see the world through more than just our limited perspective (whether that be our race, gender, religious  beliefs, or socio-economic level).  This can also be true to how they view those with disabilities and to see their worth. When we do this, we no longer demonize but humanize people we might normally dismiss or write off.

In this day and age it is far too easy to become cynical. The media is full of cynicism and people are filled with opinions and criticisms that they are willing to spew out online. There is very little space given to dialogue or taking the time to stop and consider another person's point-of-view. A good way to do this is to read about those who have practiced compassion such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Sojourner Truth, Anne Frank, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela. When we take the time to do this, we begin to see the intrinsic value of everyone and that we all desire to be heard and understood.

One of the best ways to show compassion to another person is to just listen to them. To be present, offering them our undivided attention, without us wanting to interject ourselves. Focusing on them. I'll admit, this is something I need to practise more, even with my own family.  Simone Weil understood this when she wrote, "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." So few of us truly offer anyone our full attention, especially in an age of quick texts where many don't even offer fully formed words or thoughts. Certainly I see this with my teenager who will text me a one-word response such as "k" instead of "okay." That's why, on many evenings, I go for walks with Benjamin. It's an opportunity for him to talk to me about whatever he wants and I just listen or, when he asks me questions, we have discussions on subjects that range from my childhood, politics, social justice, and matters of faith. These walks allow me the opportunity to know what is on my son's heart and mind. But how often do we offer others that chance? 

Love is giving of ourselves, our time. This is the basis for compassion: being fully present.

Compassion changes us - literally. Neuroscientists who have studied how performing acts of compassion can literally change one's brain. It enhances neural integration (meaning it connects all areas of the brain). It can not only make us more mindful and present in our daily lives, but that when we do these acts, our brains emit powerful gamma waves. This helps stimulate the brain to be smarter, more creative, and have more vitality. They also found that compassion helps strengthen our immune systems. Being compassionate is good for our health and well-being.  It makes us more empathetic and have stronger relationships. Why then would I not want to teach my boys compassion?

In this day and age, it is important to me that I teach my boys that between the path of cynicism and compassion, they should always choose compassion. That they should always choose compassion over condemnation towards another. That all are deserving of compassion, including themselves. How much will they be transformed if they truly practise this?

And then how much will the world around them be?

In this age where so many people are filled with such anger they are ready to snap, how much more do we need people of compassion to love and model that love to a world that so desperately needs it. Can we afford not to be more compassionate?

How much more when we act in this manner is bringing about "on earth as it is in heaven?" How much of heaven are we offering the world with every act of care and nurture? With every act of comfort and support? When we embrace instead of judge? When we act out of grace and gratitude, love and mercy, kindness and compassion?

How can we not when we, ourselves, have experienced the mercy and goodness of God?

May we all, daily, perform even the smallest acts of compassion towards one another. Each morning, I need to wake up and ask myself and my sons: What will yours be today?

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