A Lesson in Compassion

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The screaming was unexpected.

The field trip guide passed out over-sized plastic models of pollinators to the first graders. A beetle, a bee, a humming bird. But as the critters, passed from hand to hand, approached young Tiberius (name changed to protect the innocent), he began a full scale nuclear grade melt down.

As a chaperone, my first thought was this kid has lungs! My next thought was this kid is really leaning into this joke of pretending to be afraid. But it dawned on me that the kid was no comedian. His screams and eyes wide with terror were the real thing.

the shire

This happened last week as I chaperoned my son’s first-grade field trip to the Bellevue Botanical Gardens. I’m still not sure why the school would just trust me with that responsibility. Perhaps the fact my children are still alive so far qualifies me. Not to mention that there were four other parents and two adult guides - a total of seven adults for a group of fourteen kids. Still outnumbered, but it gave us a fighting chance.

The theme of the trip was “flower power.” Kids are already well versed in passive resistance and non-violent protest (and violent protest for that matter), so this trip focused instead on the constituent parts of the flower and how all of them work together with pollinators to propagate the species.

At the moment, these plastic pollinators were not spreading pollen but terrorizing a poor kid.

Perhaps it was fortunate that I was a chaperone as Tiberius was my son’s friend and had been over to my house a few times. A friendly face could be comforting, but he had to make do with mine. I waved him over to stand next to me and the guide gave him a pinwheel representing wind. Wind is a great pollinator. It pollinates cars and patio furniture with that sticky yellow crap.

Tiberius calmed down and all seemed well. I felt for the kid, but I was also disconcerted by some thoughts I had at the time that I’m not proud of.

To explain, I’ll need the help of Louis CK. In his HBO special, Oh My God, there’s this great bit where Louis describes the sort of cognitive dissonance I experienced.

Everybody has a competition in their brain of good thoughts and bad thoughts. Hopefully the good thoughts win. For me I always have both. I have the thing I believe, the good thing. That’s the thing I believe. And then there’s this thing. And I don’t believe it, but it is there.

He calls it a category of his brain called “Of course! But maybe” and provides several examples. They’re pretty harsh, so you’ve been warned. Here’s his first one,

Of course, of course, children who have nut allergies need to be protected. Of course! We have to segregate their food from nuts. Have their medication available at all times. And anybody who manufactures or serves food need to be aware of deadly nut allergies. Of course!

He goes on.

But maybe. Maybe, if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die.


Of course not! Of course not! Of course not. Jesus! I have a nephew who has that I’d be devastated if something happened to him. But maybe

Of course I felt compassion for Tiberius. But there was this other thought. But maybe this kid needs to get a grip and toughen up. It was a momentary knee jerk reaction. Of course he’s only six years old, but maybe… Later on in the day something would happen that would give me a different insight into this idea.

After exploring more of the garden, we end up at the visitor center and another guide, a former teacher, cross examines the children about what they’ve learned on the trip as they sat cross legged on the floor.

As they reviewed pollinators, she held up a large photo of a bee and Tiberius again loses his shit (thankfully not in the literal sense). But maybe popped in my head as I stood there slack jawed with the other adults. I braced for the worse expecting the other kids to snigger at him or tease him outright.

Before any of us could act, the boy in front of Tiberius sat up straighter to block his view of the photo. The girl next to that boy scooted over as well creating a little first-grader phalanx to block Tiberius’s view while he buried his head in fear in the boy’s back.

With his hand placed softly on Tiberius’s back, the boy behind Tiberius quietly gave him directions “Don’t look now” and “Ok, you can look now” as the teacher cycled through photos.

I remember often being on the receiving end of such teasing at that age. Instead the kids surprised me. They banded together to care for one of their own with compassion while I was having my shameful but maybe thought.

I rarely cry, but I nearly lost it right then and there. I’m ashamed at my own initial gut reaction. Our culture is pretty fucked up when you think about. We tell boys it’s not ok to be afraid. It’s not ok to cry as if this is some universal truth about manhood.

But a cursory reading of historical texts demonstrates this is a cultural construct, and an unhealthy one at that. The Old Testament is rife with men weeping. Old Japanese and European epics are full of the “manliest” heroes crying buckets.

In his book Crying, The Natural and Cultural History of Tears Tom Lutz notes,

In the twelfth-century Tales of the Heiki, men cry copiously. The warrior Koremori declares, “I am forever undecided,” and weeps. The monk Sonei weeps in abjection as he pleads to be told the way to escape the endless circle of death and rebirth, and weeps tears of joy when he is told.

In the translation of Beowulf by Leslie Hall,

Then the noble-born king kissed the distinguished, Dear-lovèd liegeman, the Dane-prince saluted him, And claspèd his neck; tears from him fell,

These passages describe very “manly” warriors crying as something natural. My story concerns a six-year old child crying as if it were abnormal.

These kids showed me what true empathy and compassion is. The tragedy is that over the next few years, socialization, peer-pressure, media influences, etc. will destroy that pure compassion and empathy. They’ll be inundated with messages that such behavior is weak and pathetic until they’re as snarky and mean spirited as I often am. I hope to fight that influence on my kids every step of the way. If they can retain an ounce of the caring these six year olds naturally have, it would do a lot of good in this world.

Some will say the boy needs to toughen up for his own sake. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there after all. Perhaps that’s true, but we are not dogs and we don’t have to participate in the dog eating. We are humans and we can do better.

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21 responses

  1. Avatar for @UXNoah
    @UXNoah May 6th, 2014

    Awwww that's so sweet man. Great post brosky! @UXNoah

  2. Avatar for Jim Sowers
    Jim Sowers May 6th, 2014

    Well said.

  3. Avatar for Niklas Ranås
    Niklas Ranås May 6th, 2014

    Wow.. That really struck something in me. I have a six year old son myself, who I don't always consider to be the Alpha-male he should be. Compassion is probably the most important thing we can teach our kids. Sooo hard sometimes though.. Makes me feel like Gollum..

    So yeah, great post!

  4. Avatar for Scott
    Scott May 6th, 2014

    Of course. Of course the boy needs to toughen up for his own sake. But maybe...

  5. Avatar for Scott
    Scott May 6th, 2014

    It sounds like the parents of your kid's classmates are doing a good job raising new people. Thanks for writing this one.

  6. Avatar for Denis Kitchen
    Denis Kitchen May 6th, 2014

    It's good that you challenge us (fathers, adults, humans) to strive to be better versions of ourselves (develop more compassion, for example). But let's not leave this poor chap out of the limitless possibilities that come with personal betterment, too. Let's have some compassion on this boy's future self. Imagine him confined by his fears to a small, comfortable little world, sheltered and alone, never having conquered the pain necessary to achieve anything closer to his full potential. The world is FAR more beneficent than dog-eat-dog.. but even so...better to be eaten than to die wasted in your cocoon; never to fly; never to show the world your beautiful wings.

  7. Avatar for Pipkins
    Pipkins May 6th, 2014

    That story really resonates, thanks for sharing. I have similar 'but maybe' moments often. Its being able to catch and filter them thats the hard part...Will try harder.

  8. Avatar for haacked
    haacked May 6th, 2014

    Sure, but he's six years old. That comes in time. No need to place all those expectations on his young shoulders.

  9. Avatar for sehe
    sehe May 6th, 2014

    I'll immediately concur that it is great to see classmates jump in and console/protect.

    I want to add, though, that I completely don't get how this is something about "men/boys crying". I see _a person overreacting_. That person must certainly get to grips with _that_, and that has **nothing** to do with "toughening up". It has more to do with chilling/take a breath/use common sense/using clues from behaviour of adults to build common sense etc.

    So yeah. This little person may have a hell of a problem to outgrow. Fortunately, for now, his classmates don't (always) feel the need to give him another (social) problem in addition.


  10. Avatar for Stuart Roberts
    Stuart Roberts May 7th, 2014

    Can we have a little understanding for Tiberius? Who knows what has led him to the place where a picture of a bee or other insert makes him react that way. I have 2 boys on the Autism spectrum, and the smallest thing can freak one or the other out on any given day.
    It doesn't happen often, but when it does I am so glad that their classmates respond with kindness, respect and understanding, rather than how kids (including me I'll admit) would have done when I was at school 20 - 30 years ago.
    Parents and teachers are doing a fantastic job raising children to be understanding and empathetic, treating people the way they would like to be treated in return. They may not be as outwardly "tough", but they are far, far better human beings, and that is much more important.
    As you said in one reply Phil, there is plenty of time in later life to be exposed to the "dog eat dog" ways of the world. For now, I'm happy for my kids to live in a caring environment, where they get the support and understanding they need from their friends, classmates, teachers, parents and the wider community.

  11. Avatar for Denis Kitchen
    Denis Kitchen May 7th, 2014

    My son is 18 now. I only need to see a photo or video of him when he was six to realize how STUNNINGLY gone that person is, and how much I've already lost of him. How grateful I am to have the moments of 'now' and 'today' to share with him. To say "there is plenty of time" is to say something we can't possibly know for a fact. One fact we all agree on... we will all die. Sitting in my cube staring at an LCD screen only proves that I'm in some denial about that fact, too. Anyway, the moments just before death will be pure anguish for those of us who squandered our potential, our life, for the cause of 'just a little more comfort'. To work at sparing each other that ultimate anguish is to truly be compassionate.

  12. Avatar for SteveD
    SteveD May 7th, 2014

    I was wondering if that was a picture of Bellevue Botanical Gardens or a general botanical-garden-esque picture. Now I know. (My daughter did not, as far as I know, require nor express compassion on this trip.)

  13. Avatar for haacked
    haacked May 7th, 2014

    Ha! Nice photo! Definitely the same garden!

  14. Avatar for haacked
    haacked May 7th, 2014

    > Anyway, the moments just before death will be pure anguish for those of us who squandered our potential, our life, for the cause of 'just a little more comfort'

    we can't possibly know that for a fact either.

  15. Avatar for Stuart Roberts
    Stuart Roberts May 7th, 2014

    Hmmm.... You know, you are right in saying that. Those years of innocence and wonder for your kids will never come back again. My father missed them, and I know he tried to make up for it with his grandkids, but each experience is different.

    On the flip-side, often there is the same anguish as you are watching a parent go through the last stages of their lives too. For me I was filled with "if only" then too, but for different reasons. I'd been away for school, then building my own career and family. Cuts both ways unfortunately.

  16. Avatar for Kristof Ulburghs
    Kristof Ulburghs May 8th, 2014

    Courageous post man! You have a medium and you said something, I always appreciate that.

  17. Avatar for Denis Kitchen
    Denis Kitchen May 8th, 2014

    True! There's always morphine. But point well taken. I should have spoken only for myself.

    Hey, on another note, I wanted to give you props. I was attempting to relate your story to my wife the other day, and when I got to the part about the way the kids were reaching out to comfort Tiberius, I choked up, teared up, the whole nine... had to pause to take a breath about five times to get to the end of the story. So THANKS for an incredibly uncomfortable moment. (No really. Thank you.)

  18. Avatar for Jeremy Hardin
    Jeremy Hardin May 8th, 2014

    Thanks for sharing this story. So glad to hear these children helping him out. I have 3 boys myself. Ages - 6, 3, and 5 months. As you said in one of your comments, the growth will come in time, but at 6 years old, their shoulders are too small to heap such burdens upon. In time, with love and compassion from myself and their mother, they will each work through fears and grow strong and courageous. As for treating others well, I hope to help my boys retain that sense of compassion and understanding as they grow through the years. God help me, because I know I don't always do a good job, but I'll keep trying.

  19. Avatar for haacked
    haacked May 8th, 2014

    :) If you want another tear jerker. http://www.slate.com/articl...

  20. Avatar for Mike Devenney
    Mike Devenney May 8th, 2014

    Beautifully put Phil... and a wake up call for me. I have an 8 year old who has that true empathy and compassion you speak of and I might not always do my best to ensure that he keeps it, along with comfort in his ability to cry when he wants or needs to. As others have mentioned, your post will make me try harder. Thanks!

  21. Avatar for Kate Jo
    Kate Jo May 18th, 2014

    It's amazing that the six-year-olds would step up like that. I don't think this is really a gender issue, though - I'd be equally amazed at the classmates' compassion if this child were a little girl. Of course, society does have strong gender pressures, and they can be horrible, horrible things. But it also comes down to local culture; I cried a whole lot as a boy in elementary school, and I'm fortunate to never really have suffered for it (...much). Society isn't always as monolithic as we believe.

    Regardless, this sort of standing up for your peers in need is the sort of thing that our world could benefit from so much. You are right to encourage it, and I wish you the best of luck.