We Weren’t Raised Like This: a Plea for Kindness and Empathy

My travels around the Big Bend often take me past a marquee that advertises private events. The sign is prominently placed off a public road leading into a public area of astounding natural beauty. The county spent a lot of money to make the public area clean, safe, and inviting to everyone, not just the people who can afford to live in the private homes that surround it.

The marquee, to me, is a not-so-subtle reminder to non-residents that they don’t really belong there and they’re certainly not truly welcome. It feels like something one ought to get in trouble with their mom for doing. It just feels wrong.

It reminds me of when we were little kids in grade school and it was time to hand out valentines and invitations to birthday parties. Our parents and teachers made sure we included every classmate. We all had people to whom we didn’t want to give a valentine or invite to our party – that’s normal. But excluding those we didn’t like was unacceptable.

We were told by the people we respected – our authority figures – that including others and taking just a minute to think about how they felt, was the right thing to do. Other people’s feelings mattered, not just our own. If you want somebody to consider and respect your feelings and opinions, they taught us, you’re going to have to do the same for them.

That was our first understanding of power: Sometimes you have it; sometimes you don’t. We learned in grade school how sometimes the popular kid is king of the world until a new, more interesting kid shows up. We saw that sometimes the quiet child stands up to a bully and then becomes the queen of the playground. That’s how we learned, mostly organically, but often with gentle nudges from those shaping our character, that power is not permanent. It is not fixed.

In learning to navigate the social hierarchies of the classroom and playground, we discovered that we might as well try to get along with people, beginning with understanding that you’re not perfect or universally liked, yourself. Some call that humility. I call it just being a smart observer.

Lately, it seems that people only feel good about themselves not when they find common ground with their peers, but when they feel superior to someone or something. They look down their noses to make themselves feel better, i.e. “at least I’m not a (fill in the blank).” They do this mainly by attacking the person rather than his or her argument or position, which is, frankly, lazy.

Surrounding ourselves with only like-minded people who affirm everything we believe is not how we grow. It is not how we push ourselves to become our best selves. In fact, it’s quite limiting. It necessarily closes us off to ideas and thoughts that could enrich our lives, if only we’d open our minds to the idea that maybe we don’t know everything. We all have that person who is now a dear friend, whom we started out not liking at all. That has happened with the children I’ve observed and it has happened to me as an adult.

In a world where we are so enthusiastically divided, so continuously enforced to view the world through an “us vs. them” lens, a return to kindness and consideration of the feelings and opinions of others is what will deliver us. Our leaders have failed to teach this by their example. Let’s flip this and let them learn by ours.

We were raised better than this. We’ve just forgotten it.


The World’s Toughest Snowflake