Everyone, of course! No one stands against kindness, consideration and care, especially towards those who are suffering. But does compassion look the same to everyone? Are there differences in how community groups see compassion? What behaviours are seen positively? What may not be viewed as acceptable? In achieving goals towards creating and building compassionate communities, and especially in helping children to develop positive social and emotional skills, we must take into account diversity in viewpoints which may stem from background, family group, cultural group, or socio-economic situation. What may be seen and accepted as compassionate behaviour by some, may be viewed as a public display of what should remain private by others. At the February 17th event sponsored by the Dalai Lama Center and Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House, I asked members of diverse communities within the larger community what compassion means to them, how they see their dreams as similar or different from others, and what, from their perspective, needs attention in order to honour viewpoints of different groups within the larger community.
I spoke with Julio who hails from Ecuador. Thrilled about this project and his involvement in it, he says that in Latin American countries people are inclined to be more demonstrative in expressing affection and compassion than he has noticed here. He was surprised when he first came to Canada to see people shaking hands upon meeting rather than throwing their arms around each other. Open connection is not held back in Latin America. Hearts and hugs are visible at home and on the street, between the sexes and age groups. Based on a strong sense of family and its extension into the larger community, Julio supports any and all efforts to bring more compassion to the community, whether it is through individual connections, schools, churches or community agencies. He thought it important for there to be some explicit understandings of differing cultural norms, so that we all recognize compassion in its various expressions.
For East Asians, compassion, though very important, may appear much more reserved in public expression. If a friend or family is in difficulty and really needs a helping hand, the issue is usually handled within the family circle. Bringing problems to community attention may be seen as a disgrace. Louisa, working at Kiwassa Neighbourhood House, told me a little of her own background, how she recognizes the sacrifices made by her parents in coming to Canada, and that she learned compassion from their actions. It is important for Louisa to reach out to others, beyond her own family, offering compassion through her work and community. She is able to bridge the cultural perspectives between home and the broader community. She explained that many East Asian families, though very social with friends and family, may feel wary of helping strangers. They may need to be “eased” in to such notions and programs. She felt that inviting immigrant families of various groups to share in meals, for example, each having the opportunity to learn about the other, would help. Language assistance would need to be available, as well as financial consideration so that everyone could feel included. The more compassion shown to new families, she felt, the more they would be open to showing compassion to others. For children, the same applies. If given compassion in community centres, day care programs, neighbourhood houses, and schools, Louisa says we need to see beyond the child, as an individual, and the program, as the method. To inspire the cultivation of compassion, care and confidence, those who work with children must recognize issues that may be present in the child’s family – health, economics, family dynamics all need to be brought into awareness – this is compassion at work. Louisa proudly explained how her work with Kiwassa Neighbourhood House demonstrates this kind of compassionate caring.
Jagjit, born in India, pointed out that compassion is an essential and integral part of South Asian family life. Although there are definite cautions about showing compassion and affection publicly, she says that family members of all ages are steeped in a tradition that honours elders and children and promotes respect, compassion and charity for all. She wishes to see such a tradition incorporated here, in families, schools and community. She told me the story of Bhagat Puran Singh, known sometimes as “the bearded Mother Teresa,” himself a poor man from Lahore, who faced and overcame many societal obstacles in order to help a boy suffering from leprosy. From his effort grew a huge movement of compassion, culminating in the building of Pingalwara, a home in Amritsar for those whose lives are dependent on others. Singh was devoted to the “selfless service of humanity” through his philanthropic work, his writings and his promotion of environmental care. Today, South Asians world-wide donate to the good works provided by the Pingalwara – hospital care, housing and educational opportunities. Through the telling of such stories, she, as a grandmother, teaches her grandchildren and others a fine example of compassion. Her tradition teaches that the community must provide food, water, clothing and shoes to all. No one is to be seen as an enemy. Everyone is considered equal. Compassion, she says, is advanced by making and serving community meals at temples, where groups of people from all age groups prepare food together and feed anyone who comes to eat. She exhorts all to continue with such community and multi-age programs. When she looks at immigration practices, she feels strongly that this is another area where compassion can be served. Credentials from other countries are often not recognized, placing many families in difficult economic straits on top of being newcomers to Canada.
Compassion is something natural, a way of life, passed on by example of parents. Stories, time spent with children, all can model a compassionate way of being. Jagjit’s gratitude to her own parents and family is evident as she credits her sense of cooperation, compassion and confidence to them. Schools and parents need to live these values and teach them through the relationships developed with children.
In schools, more and more we are seeing the implementation of mindfulness programs, abuse-prevention programs, Friends for Life programs, and more, all of which help develop compassion through their delivery. Individual teachers who model compassion themselves make a huge difference. Building trust and helping children learn about the realities of others can open pathways for developing students’ social-emotional skills and lifelong compassionate behaviour.