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This thing we call empathy

Empathy is the most essential quality of civilization

The other day we adopted a panda bear. I wasn’t planning on doing it, but my son drove me to it.

The panda now lives with us. He sleeps in my son’s room, and even though my son isn’t really interested in playing with him, his mind is at ease knowing that we saved him from his potentially dark destiny. Who knows what the future can hold for the hundreds of thousands of poor plush panda bears, lying in huge piles inside those cold wire cages all over IKEA.

It’s heartbreaking really. Well for us highly sensitive folk anyway.

When I was little, I was deeply empathetic. It made me sad when others were sad. I couldn’t bear to see anyone in pain. Cruelty towards people, animals, nature and things was a completely unfathomable concept to me. Even now in my mid thirties, I can neither understand nor accept what drives a human being to hurt or kill another; what it is that leads some people to feel power, or worse, amusement in harming defenseless animals; and how it is possible for people to cut down a majestic tree in a matter of minutes, without the tiniest shred of remorse. As a young Highly Sensitive Child however, having luckily grown up with little or no exposure to the cruel realities of the world, my empathy was not limited to people. I felt things so deeply, that I could see life in my dolls, my toys, my clothes, our furniture, our cars, our house. Anything that was a part of my life and helped to make me happier or more comfortable was so precious that I made every effort to protect it and treat with love, respect and care. Because if I didn’t, those things would be sad. And then I would be sad.

Having been like this as a child, I totally understood the importance of that panda bear. And what made him important was that my 14-month-old had chosen him the big pile and taken him around the store with us. He held him by one paw and swung him back and forth. He hugged him, cuddled him, and gave him an open-mouth-toddler-kiss on the snout. He showed his big brother the new friend he’d made. And then at some point along our journey, as toddlers will do, he let go of him and never looked back. When my four-year-old noticed his brother’s new friend had gone missing, he panicked. He pleaded with me to go back and find the bear. And even though I explained to him that his brother didn’t want to play with him anymore, he insisted we go back and find his lost friend. After retracing our path, I eventually found the panda and brought him back. I showed the toy to my toddler who shook his head to let me know he’d had enough. So I turned to my 4-year-old who held his arms out and hugged the bear as soon as I’d given it to him. You could see it in his face; the relief that the bear was safe.

A few minutes later however, as we continued on the endless arrowed path of the furniture wonderland, I heard my son mumbling very sadly. I walked up to him, put my hands on his shoulders and asked him what was wrong. That’s when the tears started rolling down his beautiful rosy cheeks as he asked me if we could take the panda bear home with us. Knowing that it’s not a great idea to give in to your child’s every request, I did quickly mention that he already had many toys and that we didn’t need any more. But as soon as he repeated his plea, I dropped it. I didn’t even want to say anything to begin with because I knew this had to be done. This wasn’t a car he “needed” to add to his collection or a super cool helicopter with two propellers that he absolutely had to have. This was my son trying to rescue something that, to him, was alive and had feelings and needed help. He was trying to make a difference.

Over the past week, I have heard back from over 40 mothers who have witnessed the same phenomenon in their children, some maybe to a lesser extent than others, and they all mentioned how “crazy it may sound” or “how difficult it was to explain it to other people”. And they all said that they had gone through something at least somewhat similar when they were kids, which is why they “get where it’s coming from”, even though many couldn’t really explain it. Having read through all these mothers’ stories, I found that we were all in the same boat when it came to this mysterious characteristic. Like all these mothers, I could neither explain it nor point it out earlier on, even though I had seen “it” in my son since he was very little.

And what do you call this exactly, when you try to put your finger on it? The definition of empathy is being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, to feel what they feel. So how can you feel empathy towards a toy? Or a tree? But if a child is able to anthropomorphize a tree, a toy, an old t-shirt, a cookie; when a child is able to see feelings where they don’t necessarily exist; when children create such strong links with everything that crosses their path and touches their lives in some way, well then it becomes perfectly clear to me how they can feel empathy so easily towards anything. It becomes sad when we give away old clothes, throw out broken toys, or sell old furniture. It’s upsetting when we drop a cookie on the floor, and not because we don’t have any more cookies, but because we’re leaving one behind. It becomes heartbreaking to a child to watch a balloon float away into space, never to be found again.

As an adult, I can confirm that these strong empathetic feelings cease to be brought up by objects. Yes, sometimes it makes us sad when we lose or break or sell something, but it’s sadness we feel, not empathy. Having to sell an old car makes us sad because it was part of our lives for so long, because of the memories that come with it, because of the stories it gave us, and not because we are hurting its feelings (unless you make the mistake of naming your car like I did my poor old Betsie). Instead, our empathy is incredibly strong for people, and all those other things we used to feel change into deep love and respect for things, animals and nature. These are the feelings that make me sad when I see others littering when no one is looking, or taking endless showers, or vandalizing public property, or tearing down a park to make a parking lot. This is what leaves me oblivious as to how too many people don’t really seem to care about what is happening to our world, our environment, our planet; to culture, to society, to civilizations; to our future, and to our children’s future.

I sit here now and ask myself why I was confused by my son’s behavior, why I was at a loss for words when people asked me why was acting the way he was, or why I was sometimes embarrassed by the scenes he’d make. Granted, it’s not always fun to have your child scream and cry inconsolably during the romantic lighting of Chinese lanterns at your sister’s wedding. But when you’re not in the middle of a crisis, it’s nice to try and see this “thing” our kids go through as a package of things that mature into something exquisite. Something perhaps the world needs more of.

In trying to come up with a name for all this, it all started coming back to me, all the wonderful things that come with such intense feelings. And now I see it. His ability to express sadness at the age of not-even-three by explicitly stating he was feeling sad; his constant worrying about me being happy, studying my face every now and then and saying “Mommy, smile?” before he even learned to make the simplest of sentences; the I love you’s that started coming at such a young age, completely genuine and spontaneous, without our having to ask for them; his trying to stop the cutting of 3 tall trees in front of our house, completely rejecting the “termites” excuse that the landlords gave us, at the mere age of 4.

I still don’t know what to call this whole thing. I won’t pretend that I’ve figured it all out, because I haven’t. But I do know that even though it may not seem like it sometimes, this thing we call empathy is strong in our little HSCs, and it no matter how it expresses itself early on, it’s important that we recognize it, understand it, and nurture it. It is this thing that makes us better sons and daughters, better mothers and fathers, better neighbors, better citizens, better people.

And as for our little panda bear, well, my son totally lost interest as soon as we got home. And a few days later when I asked him why he wanted the panda so bad, he said to me that it was his baby brother who wanted the panda. And it doesn’t really matter anyway; my son successfully rescued a panda in need, my toddler has a new friend, and the panda seems to be quite happy in his new home.

Empathy is the most essential quality of civilization, empathy, highly sensitive children

Alex enjoying the company of his new furry friend

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