When I was a child, I’d feel sorry for anyone who appeared less fortunate than I. That would include the white-haired elderly stooped over with age, as well as the infirm, a word I didn’t learn the meaning of until I was much older myself.
It’s hard to describe this feeling; saying you feel “sorry” sounds like “pity,” but it’s not; at least, not in my case. When seeing a person with an obvious disfigurement, or walking with crutches or being pushed in a wheelchair, an overwhelming feeling of concern would well up inside me. I’d wish I could ease their pain, even if they had no pain; I wanted to help them get over their discomfort somehow.
This feeling came from within. There was something innate about it. I knew it was the right thing to feel when I saw the suffering of others. No one could have taught me this. Oh, my parents shared the Golden Rule with me and my brothers. They told us to be kind to other people and to animals.
But you couldn’t teach me to “feel” what I now realize was “compassion” and “empathy.” It came naturally for me. I believe it comes naturally for all children; that it’s part of our basic good nature to “feel sorry” for others. All of us at some point wanted to help others and ease their pain, even if it was just by offering a smile, saying hello, or asking with loving kindness “Can I help you?”
I’d get so much out of helping someone else. I’d feel good inside, a quiet, happy, silent type of joy. I’d never expect anything in return and I’d feel I was doing exactly what the nuns at Catholic school would later advise me was what the Almighty One wanted all of us to do: to care for each other, particularly, the down-and-out.
And then one day someone older than me said I was a fool to feel this way; that I shouldn’t give to someone begging on the street because he’d just “drink it up.” Another person who I thought was wise said that the unfortunate “got what they deserved,” and that their illnesses or maladies probably were their own fault because of the way “they” lived — never explaining what was meant by “they.” You’d understand that it was that person’s way of putting down another because of his race, religion, sexual preference or orientation.
I’d be a sucker to care for them, “smarter” adults would tell me, and the child inside would ask how something that made me feel so good could be so bad. You can’t get ahead in life, achieve your goals, or make lots of money by offering loving kindness and compassion to others who are suffering, they said. “Grow up,” they all told me.
And I did, quashing these feelings, and challenging the world with a determination to compete, to get ahead, and to succeed no matter what the cost. I’d get awards; see my name and achievements engraved on wall plaques in halls of higher learning and in business. And I’d make a comfortable living, providing for a future where there’d be few concerns or worries.
Something was missing, however, and it wasn’t until I connected with the child inside did I realize I had been missing it during my adult life. Giving freely to others was and is “life.” Sharing with those with little or nothing provides me with all that I could ever want. Putting another’s needs above my own offers me a joy that I’ve missed since silently cherishing it while much younger.
Offering love to others is a good way to receive love back, but only if it’s done with nothing expected in return.
The child inside me had the right feelings all along, I realized. Now that I know this again, let me make it right for all the years I missed not helping you.
May I help you, please?
It would be my pleasure. Thank you.
(A recent study found that the pupils of infants’ eyes widened when they saw someone in need—a sign of concern—but their pupils would shrink when they could help that person—or when they saw someone else help, suggesting that they felt better. (Babies as young as four or five months will try to help their mothers pick up something dropped on the floor.) They seem to care primarily for the other person and not themselves. It was calming to see the person’s suffering being alleviated, whether or not they were the ones who did it.}