I started this journey when I was three, maybe four. Researchers indicate we learn compassion at an early age through role modeling and I was fortunate to have two parents who ingrained empathy and compassion into their children. My first memory of helping others was in the early 1960s. I vividly remember my mother caring for a stranger’s child. My family was traveling in a car to some destination I cannot remember and we pulled over at a gas station to fill up our tank. A couple at the station was having car trouble. My dad got out and helped the father with the car. In the meantime, my mother visited with the mother. The couple had a child about one year old who had severe sunburn. I don’t recall if there were blisters but I remember the red skin and the crying. Mother had Solarcaine in our car. She got out of the car, offered her assistance and helped the mother apply the lotion to the child.  I remember my mother being so helpful and soothing.

My mother came back to the car, searched through our bag of food and proceeded to take our small boxes of cereals to the family. Oh yes, and the milk. At that time, I was in love with Sugar Pops. I could see my individual box of Sugar Pops fading in the distance and started to protest. My mother came back to the car and reprimanded me for fussing. She then told me we had more than other people and we must share. We must help those that are less fortunate. We must reach out. Mother shared the cereal, filled the baby bottle with milk and gave it to the baby. The baby must have been very hungry because it quieted immediately and then went to sleep after the finishing off the bottle. I remember feeling angry,  definitely pouting, but then feeling OK about what my mother was doing.

I have taken that lesson and many others lessons from individuals who truly exemplify compassion, empathy, patience, persistence and endurance even during the toughest times. Some were leaders, independent contributors, clinical staff, allied health, support staff, professional colleagues and friends.  All maintained a sense of empathy and compassion through layoffs, hiring freezes, budget cuts, and staffing model changes but still were able to move the business forward. All maintained a sense of integrity, awareness of the human side of the workforce, and exemplified servant leadership, even as informal leaders.

We teach our children compassion through role-modeling. We walk the talk. We expose them to environments that nurture awareness of others. We teach them Sand-box Skills – don’t throw sand, help build the castle, don’t kick the castle, help carry sand in your bucket, share your shovel, encourage each other, celebrate together. As they age, we offer counsel, encourage the Golden Rule and other means to intellectually and emotionally support compassion and empathy as an integral part of developing character and values.

 But how do we teach compassion and empathy to adults? Certainly much has passed since childhood and adolescence that contributes to the development of compassion, the ease of feeling empathy, the comfort with reaching out.  Fears, anxieties, social norms, roles and personal values impact our need, comfort and desire to express compassion. In addition, our society highly values logical thinking and analysis. But, there is a place for both.

Thoughts to Build On

How have you learned compassion?

In your opinion, what are key elements of compassion?

What is your comfort level with demonstrating compassion and awareness of others in the workplace?

Who do you admire that balances compassion with the needs of the organization?

Finally, how would you rate the Sandbox Skills of your workplace?

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