Nourishing the body could not get any easier. Nutritional science and availability of healthful food have both improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years, taking the guesswork out of figuring out what is good or bad for growing bodies. Yes, it requires effort and more than a little creativity to ensure that children lead healthy lives. But the process lends itself to a certain level of objectivity.
Nourishing the spirit is quite another matter. The Gordian Knot has only become tighter and more complicated. If anyone has the code to unraveling it, they are not telling.
Evidence of apathy is pervasive. Extreme and bone-chilling apathy. There was the story of the man lying on the street after being struck by a truck on a busy street. Many people witnessed the accident, but it took more than a few minutes before someone thought to call the police or go to him to help. There was a recent incident in DC when a man was struck by two other men in the middle of the afternoon. The man lay on the footpath for a good 20 minutes before a shopkeeper called the police. A newspaper reporter who viewed the security tapes from a nearby store and counted more than a 100 people walking right past the comatose man. Then there was the story of a woman who lay sprawled on the floor of a busy emergency room at a NY City hospital for an entire day. No one bothered to see if she was all right. By the time a hospital worker came and poked her with her shoe, the woman was dead.
The people who walked by and walked around and ignored the suffering were ordinary people going about their business. It's hard to imagine that every single one of them was cruel or wantonly decided to let people die when they could have helped. You don't want to think that people are capable of such indifference. You hope and pray that your child is neither the perpetrator nor the victim of this utter disregard for a fellow human being.
But what do you say to your children to mould them into caring, compassionate human beings? When do you say it? How do you say it? Will whatever you say have any impact? There is no easy, objective way to arrive at or measure any of this.
This doesn't stop one from trying, of course. The mind constantly churns, spinning new approaches to achieving the ideal. I have found myself bouncing between a few.
There is the 'showing by example' approach - if children see the parent showing compassion, empathy or generosity, the hope is that they will adopt those values and do the same. Then there is the 'talk till you are blue in the face' approach - the shortcomings are obvious: children tend to zone out; concepts like generosity, fairness, compassion and helpfulness are not easy to talk about in the abstract. There is also the 'teachable moment' approach combined with the Socratic method where one uses a recent real-life event (preferably in the child's life) or a story in a book to draw out lessons by asking the child what he or she might have done in that situation - it appears to be the most effective approach, one that holds the child's interest, but of course, one requiring a lot of patience and forbearance on the part of the parent. Finally there is the 'praise every compassionate, kind act and build it up' approach - positive reinforcement, in other words.
Sometimes, when I either don't have the patience or none of these techniques appears to be able to do the trick, I resort to shorthand. "C," I say, "you've got to be a gentleman. That's the only way to be in this life." I have the satisfaction of having tried to convey what is important. Occasionally it leads to further conversation about what it means in that context, other times it trails off into nothing.
There is no denying that we as a society make this issue of how we relate to our fellow human beings very complicated. We teach our children to strive to be the best. They are trained to defeat, to celebrate winning. We look at the poor sod who lost with pity. When they lose, they are told not to worry, that they did their best, even as they are coached to derive lessons from the loss and plot their way back to winning.
Yes, as adults, we rationalize. Teaching to win does not necessarily mean begetting a hard heart. We teach our kids to win but we also teach them to do it fairly, to be generous to the vanquished.
Somewhere in this cacophony of mixed messages and crossed signals you wish fervently that their instinct to do good by their fellow human being, however meager it may be, is not pulverized into nothingness.
Which is why when I received an e-mail from C's swimming coach with this message, "I find it encouraging that it IS possible to develop a very competitive will and a good heart at the same time. These things are not at all mutually exclusive," I eagerly scanned the rest of the e-mail.
It contained an incredible, heart-warming story. I could use a lot more adjectives to describe it for you, but would much rather have you read it for yourself. This is a story about baseball, but lack of knowledge of the game should pose no impediment. But before going any further, if you are anything like me - easily given to tears - I would urge you to have plenty of tissues at hand.
At a fundraising dinner for a school that serves children with learning disabilities, the father of one of the students delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he offered a question:
"When not interfered with by outside influences, everything nature does, is done with perfection. Yet my son, Shay, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do. Where is the natural order of things in my son?"
The audience was stilled by the query.
The father continued. "I believe that when a child like Shay, who was mentally and physically disabled comes into the world, an opportunity to realize true human nature presents itself, and it comes in the way other people treat that child."
Then he told the following story:
Shay and I had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, "Do you think they'll let me play?" I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.
I approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, "We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning."
Shay struggled over to the team's bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three.
In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again.
Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat.
At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.
However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher.
The game would now be over. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman's head, out of reach of all team mates.
Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, 'Shay, run to first! Run to first!' Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.
Everyone yelled, "Run to second, run to second!" Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball. The smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head.
Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home. All were screaming, "Shay, Shay, Shay, all the way Shay!"
Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, "Run to third! Shay, run to third!"
As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, "Shay, run home! Run home!" Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team.
"That day," said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, "the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world."
Shay didn't make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making me so happy, and coming home and seeing his Mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!