The Dad Next Door: Our Better Angels
If you’re like most parents, you don’t get out to the theater much these days. But luckily, you can still take in all the drama you want by watching your kids. There’s a passion play onstage at your neighborhood playground, and it rivals anything that Shakespeare ever wrote.
If you like tragedy, there’s enough struggle and frailty there to satisfy anyone. Look, there’s Lady Macbeth in line at the top of the slide, manipulating who goes first. Caliban is crawling around the sandbox, eating dirt. And King Lear lies weeping under the monkey bars, feeling abandoned and betrayed.
But the best of humanity is on display, too. Puck is racing around the teeter-totter, making everyone laugh. Juliet stands atop the jungle gym, calling down to her Romeo. And Portia steps between two angry playmates, pleading for forgiveness in a vengeful world.
Every child contains within them the best and worst qualities of the human race. Their angels and their demons stand on their shoulders and fight for their souls. Our job is to make sure the angels win. But to do that, we have to battle our own demons first.
Years ago, I remember driving my daughter to a playdate on a cold, damp Seattle morning. We stopped at an intersection where a grizzled old man was panhandling. He was bleary-eyed, and a little unsteady on his feet. The driver in front of us rolled down her window and handed him a few coins
“What did she give him?” my daughter asked.
“Some money,” I said.
“Because he’s poor – she wanted to help him.”
“Are we going to give him money?”
I hesitated, wondering how much I could tell a 5-year-old about addiction, or mental illness, or the social safety net.
“We don’t have any money for him,” I said.
She went back to singing a song from <i>Beauty and the Beast</i>. But she hadn’t moved on. She was just thinking.
“Why don’t you like poor people?”
What my daughter sensed in me that day was an old failing of mine that I still have to work to overcome. All too often, empathy does not come naturally to me.
Compassion has never flowed to my heart like a mountain spring – I have to fill it by hand, a bucket at a time. I think that’s true for a lot of men. All our lives, we’ve been told that our worth depends on toughness, self-reliance, and honing a competitive edge. We carry the cultural and genetic tools of the warrior and the hunter. Compassion doesn’t come with the set. We have to go out and find it ourselves.
But don’t worry – we don’t have to shave our heads and travel to a monastery in Tibet.
What if I told you that a great teacher of empathy and kindness is already sitting right there under your nose? Actually, they’re right behind you. In a booster seat.
Kids understand what it means to be vulnerable and weak. For them, compassion for others doesn’t depend on history, or ideology, or self-interest. It isn’t weakened by rationalization or denial. They have a simpler view of the world: pain is bad, and suffering is wrong. If it’s in your power to prevent these things, then you should.
When we cultivate compassion in our kids, it’s not just a responsibility – it’s an opportunity. The best parts of humanity are alive and well in them. When we nurture those qualities, we rekindle them in ourselves.
Once, while we were vacationing on the Oregon coast, I caught a bunch of crayfish in a river and decided to bring them home to make a Cajun feast. My daughter kept one of them in a jar for closer inspection, but I let her know that he was destined for the dinner table, just like the others.
When the time came to drop our catch into boiling water, she bravely handed me the jar. But as I unscrewed the cap, a wail of anguish rose up from her chest, and she dissolved into tears.
That one lucky crayfish escaped my <i>étouffée.</i> We took him down to a little creek near our cabin and watched him crawl out of his jar. As the current swept him away to his new home, the angels on my shoulder cheered and traded high-fives, and the little angel beside me sniffled back the last of her tears.
Jeff Lee releases spiders without harming them in Seattle, Wash.
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