Last year, while carpooling my eighth-grader and his friends after school, I listened to their conversation about the much debated Muslim ban. My son and his friend made comments about how “dumb and also unconstitutional” it was. Another friend argued the executive order was constitutional. He gave the following as his argument: “Imagine if someone gave you a box of Skittles and you knew two of those Skittles were poisoned. Would you still take the box?” “You mean more like 2 poisoned Skittles out of 300,000?” retorted my son. Fair point, I thought. However, I could understand how his friend’s logic would make sense to many. As they debated the possibilities of good and bad Skittles, I resisted the urge to chime in. “What about the people at the center of the issue? the millions of refugees fleeing from war?, where is the compassion for them?” I wanted to ask. It made me wonder about how my own compassion developed and what I could do to foster it in my kids.
I think of our capacity to feel compassion is akin to our capacity to love. It is both an innate human ability and a conscious skill that requires practice. Like real love, we cultivate this feeling by using it as much as we can. If we want more compassion, and ultimately, more kindness, how can we create or enhance our ability to feel it?
For me, stories have always been an integral way to connect with humanity. Even when I have nothing in common with a character, the story allows me to imagine I’m walking in their shoes, feeling what they feel. I get to have their experience, even if just for a little while. Stories can have a profound effect in teaching compassion in subtle ways, without being too self-righteous. The emotional element of exposing ourselves to another person’s story also magnifies the impact in a way that looking at a set of facts surrounding an issue could never do. Anyone who has watched movies like Forrest Gump or Slumdog Millionaire can attest to how a powerful story can transform you from passive observer to emotionally invested. Fiction is one of my favorite means of storytelling. I can vividly recall the connection I felt to the young drug addict, the main character in Donna Tartt’s The Gold Finch, or to the men on death row in Stephen King’s Green Mile. These, and other stories, have made me feel a little less separate from others whom I may have otherwise judged unfairly.