I have a very small but very wonderful teaching gig at the Village School once a week for one hour. I write philosophy curriculum on a different topic for each month, largely based on the book, Little Big Minds, by Marietta McCarty, and then I get to work with a small group of girls each week, leading the discussions and teaching.
During the month of November, our topic is compassion. Each week, the girls have all had the same heated debate - whether or not compassion is innate or learned. I was not entirely convinced one way or the other myself; I see strong arguments on both sides. My recent experiences with my own children have not necessarily convinced me of one side or the other, but they have convinced me that witnessing compassion in young children is one of the most beautiful things ever.
For awhile at dinnertime, Aidan and Leo argued over what prayer we would say or sing. Aidan often wanted to say his own prayer, while Leo would throw up his hands over his head, his sign for the Superman prayer. What was supposed to be a peaceful blessing before our meal had become a source of stress. So we decided to alternate and let Leo choose one night, Aidan, the next. This worked quite nicely. Then one night, when it was Leo's turn to choose, we asked him what prayer he would like to do. He looked at each of us, then motioned to Aidan. "You want Aidan to choose?" I interpreted. Leo nodded. Aidan simply stared at Leo in amazement, obviously touched that Leo was offering this gift to him. And so, in turn, Aidan chose Leo's favorite prayer. It was a really beautiful moment that I know I will recall with fondness (not to mention proof positive that despite their bickering, they are brothers who really love one another and care for each other in selfless ways.)
Another day, I was feeling particularly frustrated and worn out from the nearly-two year old Leo. Everything had been a battle that day, things like not allowing him to play with heirloom pearls or smack his brother with the broom, daring to clean up the table with a sponge instead of letting him clean it up with the sponge himself, giving him the wrong sippy cup, and so on. To quote an observant grandma I know, Leo is positively relentless. And so after I heaved the millionth dramatic sigh of the day, Aidan looked right at me and said, "Mommy, I am feeling what you are feeling about Leo right now." If that's not compassion straight out of the mouth of a four year old, I don't know what is.
And finally - tomorrow, Aidan is having a party at preschool to celebrate Thanksgiving. He was asked to bring (disposable plastic) tablecloths, and so on Monday, I took him to the local variety store to pick out the ones he wanted. "Look, Aidan, here's one with turkeys all over it!" I exclaimed. "Is this the one you want to get?" Aidan answered vehemently, "NO." "No? Why not?" I asked, shocked. He explained that he wanted plain tablecloths, because he wanted to decorate them all by himself. And while this is not strictly an act of compassion, it certainly is an act of love, of wanting to please other people, and the best part was that it was entirely his idea. It never occurred to me that he could use his art skills to decorate tablecloths. He chose white, because "all the colors will show up well," and he has worked for 3 days straight on making beautiful art. He drew pictures of his classmates, and labeled them with their first initial below each person. He drew leaves, a turkey, a boat, and lots of shapes and abstract designs. He drew his teachers and his class sitting together in a circle. He drew his heart out, his love; he illustrated his thanks.
cherished overwhelming desires to be of use in the great world,
to play a conscious part in its progress."