I’ve been traveling a lot lately, to promote The Philosophy of Childing and for consulting work, and am lucky if I can spend one full day each week at home with my family. My youngest, Cybele, almost three years old, gets quite upset when I have to say good-bye again — but not in the way you might think. When the taxi arrives to pick me up and I am set to leave, her lower lip juts out in a pout. But it is not of the self-pitying kind. Rather, Cybele is sad for me. “Daddy’s going to be lonely,” she says. “He won’t have Cybele with him.” Her empathy — a stark contrast to the pervasive narcissism exhibited among adults today — is extraordinary and exemplary.
As I assert in my book — an assertion I back up with a ream of pioneering cognitive science studies — our youngest tend to be hard-wired to be empathic. But this propensity to feel others’ pain can go by the wayside as we get older. Why is this so? For one thing, the young are marginalized, with few rights, and hence have little opportunity or power to change the all-too-often cold and cruel ways of the adult-created world. Look at the world we’ve made for them; look at all the adult-driven blunders that lead us to carom from one catastrophe after another.
Or look at more down to earth instances: The adult in the seat behind me in my latest flight kicked and kicked my seat. The flight attendant was as friendly as could be when she asked him not to. He took offense, and kicked even more. So I moved. But how sad. (An adult would likely call his behavior ‘childish,’ but as I argue in my book, it isn’t childish at all — and to say so is to do a disservice to kids — but is instead an awful form of ‘adultishness.’) I feel sorry for the kids in his orbit. You might ask, is he this way because of the way he was raised? I dare hazard that he is — and that he wasn’t this way before he ‘learned’ this behavior from those who ‘raised’ him. Can we adults unlearn all the nonredemptive lessons from our parents and other adults in our life when we were can, can we unlearn how to be narcissists? Anyone who has an extreme narcissist in his or her life knows how toxic they can be, the damage they can inflict without the slightest remorse.
There is some gray area, though — there is the multimillionaire I came to know when he was struggling, much as I continue to do. He hit the high-tech crest just right, and sold an app he developed for many millions. He was sitting pretty financially. He continued to do some good and admirable things, but whenever I saw him, I detected the change. It was now mostly all about him and narcissistic satisfactions that he loved to relate to me in rather nauseating detail. I had hoped he might help support our nonprofit, and approached him openly and directly about this, since he had long admired what I do.
He did cut one check for a relatively puny amount, asked me to do considerably more work to present to him on outcome measures, with the carrot and stick promise of more funding. I devoted nearly two weeks of my life to this, along with a board member. But by then this person had moved on, had not the slightest interest when we next met; he even seemed miffed by my presentation of just how effective we were at what we did — to the point that the next time I saw him, this person, with so many millions, made it a point to tell me not to even think to ask him for money. I just looked at him in disbelief. It wouldn’t have occurred to him that it never would have crossed my mind in a million years ever to ask him for another penny of support, not after the dismissive way he treated me last time around, without the slightest twinge of misgivings for his comportment He still does some good in his way, and he has helped spread the word about my work even if he’ll never spread the wealth my nonprofit’s way.
But I miss the person he once was, though, a combination of humility, passionate hard work, vulnerability in the best sense, and fellow feeling. I wish my children could work their magic on him. I wouldn’t for the world trade the loves I have in my life and my meagre income for his millions; I have something far more valuable and lasting. But I also wonder: would money change me, my family, if I ever sold lots of books, for instance, and struck it rich? I like to think not. But I wonder. Wouldn’t mind being put to the test, and hopefully passing it.
If there is hope for unlearning the worst of the types of natures some cultivate as adults, our hope resides in children. We must look to them to show us the way.
Somehow our youngest, even from miserable circumstances, often manage to smile on, shine on, hope on, and demonstrate a capacity for caring that puts us adults — or should put us– to shame; and should also inspire us to be more like them in our daily doings. If only those of us adults in positions of responsibility would act out of the same limitless caring capacity of my youngest. What a world it might be.
Some adults of course will want principally to intellectualize this, dissect this, put it under the microscope, and so will focus on asking and investigating: Where do our youngest get this empathy? It’s important to discover even more about this at a foundational level, to be sure. But it can also be a seductive way to avoid the mere fact that they have it, regardless of where or how it originates, and we don’t take the time to learn from them, emulate them.
Cybele’s daddy is writing this from a hotel room, a bit forlorn and lonely, but with a full heart; I have the comfort of knowing that when I return home, I will be greeted by this special child and her sister, both of whom sorely miss me, but just want their dad home — mostly so he won’t be without them. I hope I can ‘child’ enough to learn to love and empathize as much as Cybele and her older sister do. With Cybele and Cali in my orbit, I think I stand good odds of succeeding.