Caring and Empathy, the Building Blocks for Our Big Loves

Renée Fuller, Ph.D.

Copyright © Renée Fuller, 2001

     Seven-year old Ronny and his mother were visiting the Conners when there was a minor accident. While we were out on their deck admiring their beautiful garden, Mrs. Conner tripped and fell with a loud crash. It must have hurt.

     Marci, her two-and-a-half-year old daughter rushed to her side, concern on her face. She threw her little arms around her mother, kissing her and sobbing, "Mommy got boo-boo. Marci kiss boo-boo. Make boo-boo better."

     Although Mrs. Conner had the wind knocked out of her by the fall, she immediately put her own arms around her daughter. Then, after getting her breath back, "Oh, thank you, thank you. That helped. Mommy's already much better. You made the boo-boo much better." The concerned child was now gently patting the knees that had struck the deck with a bang.

Marci's loving concern was greeted with warm smiles and affection by the rest of us. Our approval of the little girl's actions was very evident. Seven-year old Ronny watched the scene with rapt fascination. He was taking it all in, including our delighted praise of Marci. But something puzzled him, as the questions he later asked his mother revealed. "Why did Mrs. Conner say she was better? That's silly. It takes a while for a fall like that to stop hurting. She hit the deck real hard."

     His mother tried to explain. But as she told me later, "I don't think Ronny got what I was trying to tell him. I don't think he understood. He seems to think that Marci was just imitating her mother and that what she did was stupid, or maybe just what girls do. He's convinced that our praise of Marci was real silly. Of course he's at the stage where he thinks everything about us girls, big and little, is silly."

     Ronny's mother was right. Ronny hadn't understood. But something about what had happened kept bothering him. So he sought out a second opinion. That weekend when he and his Dad were cleaning the yard he brought up the subject. In a surprisingly well-organized summary for a seven-year old he described Marci's response to her mother's fall, her mother's reaction to Marci's kissing "the boo-boo," and our praise of Marci. He finished with the statements and the question; "It was such a stupid little girl thing. Why did everyone act like she'd done something special? It was real dumb."

     Ronny senior described this interchange with his son on a visit to my office. A big man whose southern Italian grandparents were half his size, he is head of the large local fire station; a picture of macho competence. His puzzled face expressed concern about his son's lack of comprehension. I was curious as to why, and began by asking; "What did you tell Ronny?"

     "I told him that what Marci did was great. That what she did is a big girl's, not just a little girl's thing. And for that matter, it's also a real man's thing. Sure, Marci was imitating her mother. But that's good. That's what children are supposed to do - imitate the good things their parents do."

     The big fireman proceeded to relate how he explained to his son that when they rescued people from a burning building it was terribly important to use reassuring, comforting, caring words. That it made a big difference. It calmed people down and made them feel better. "I told him about the lecture by a Doctor explaining that comforting words are healing words - that caring by others even makes injured people heal faster. It's not enough just to help people, even to rescue them. You have to show that it makes a difference to you that they're O.K." Rather sheepishly he added: "I guess in a way I was trying to tell my son about the power of love. 'Cause that's what this is about. I was surprised that he thought that caring is a girl's thing."

     Then, expressing the concern which was the reason he had brought up the subject, "Something's really wrong if boys think that caring is just a girl's thing. It's not that Ronny doesn't understand the idea of community service. He's got that down pat - what with the emphasis coming from the school and the Church, and I guess what he's heard from me and the guys at the fire station. But he didn't really get it - community service without it meaning something to you - well then it's just going through the motions. It's not the real thing. I guess we missed out on getting across the real thing."

     The big man's misgivings kept reminding me of something. Then I remembered. It was a verse I heard many times in my childhood during Sunday morning Meetings after a member had expressed self-satisfied gratification about the "good works" our Society of Friends was performing all over the globe. On those occasions an elder would rise and quote the verse as a warning. "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing, And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing."

     It is the verse from Corinthians 13; the admonition Apostle Paul sent to the parish of the Greeks in Corinth. He was reproaching the parish for going through the motions of community service without genuine caring - without love. Like Ronny, the Corinthians had missed out on the importance of the real thing; indulging themselves in self-satisfied empty gestures. Our macho fireman had understood. He had understood the emotional costs, the human implications of the empty gestures, which Apostle Paul had warned against.

     Cold-hearted charity, the giving without caring, a dearth of empathy and therefore love, all these have always been with us. Five centuries before Apostle Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians, the Greek, Aristophanes, wrote a comedy about the dearth in caring, about insufficient love. His play, Lysistrata, takes place in a wonderful imaginary Greek society in which caring love abounds. And so, because the women of this imaginary society care so much for their sons, fathers and husbands they go on strike to convince their men not to go to war against each other again. The bawdy dialogue of Lysistrata disguises the human tragedy implied by the comic drama.

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Like Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, Aristophanes realized the calamitous consequences that haunt our lack of empathy, that accompanies the skimpiness of our caring love.
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     Our fireman, Ronny's father, had grasped the implications and their consequences. He had also realized that Ronny's lack of understanding was not just the immaturity of a seven-year old boy. The notion that empathy and genuine caring is a foolish and therefore a silly girl thing did not arise in Ronny's mind out of thin air. Rather, it represents a societal convention and conviction that places Florence Nightingale in the hospital behind the battlefield where she nurses the he-men who were wounded on the battlefield. Of course no real he-man would take on her nurturing role. However, as Aristophanes' comedy implies, caring love is frequently deficient even as a girl thing. Only in his comedy do the women have enough empathy and caring - and that means love - to form a female alliance in order to protect their men from each other.

     And yet, all of us long for genuine caring. You see it in the attachment children have for the Ball-Stick-Bird characters of Vad, Mimi and Happy Cat Dick who exhibit caring love and devotion. The affection for these imaginary characters attests to how much we yearn for a loving reality. Nor is this yearning restricted to childhood. Even in adulthood the characters of the reading series are remembered with an affection that reflects a depth of feeling and a longing need for the emotions of empathy and caring: the essential building blocks of love.


Vad Cares
Example of empathy and caring - love.

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Our need and our longing to receive as well as give caring love is an essential part of who we are as humans - all the more since there is generally such a deficiency in the actualization of these yearnings.
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     As I look back at the scene of Marci's concern for her mother I realize how much her parents encouraged their daughter's feelings of empathy as a prerequisite for genuine caring. Empathy and caring, essentials to the big loves of our lives require nurturing in order to develop. And that nurturing needs to have its beginnings in childhood. Childhood events, such as the one Ronny witnessed, organize how we will perceive and function in our world. The encouragement and praise Marci received as a child helped determine the emotions she is capable of feeling, and therefore expressing, now that she is an adult.

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     There may well be a critical period during which our emotions develop, during which empathy and caring love have to be learned in order to flourish in adulthood.
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That is what happens with language. Our capacity to become fluent in language requires exposure to language communication prior to puberty. If deprived of such exposure until after adolescence, the ability to learn language is severely limited. Similarly, research on the development of emotions in our fellow mammals such as other primates, even dogs, shows that deprivation of caring love in early development results in the inability to give it in adulthood. But there is more. As Jane Goodall described for wild chimpanzee, daughters of nurturing mothers like Flo in turn develop into nurturing mothers. Even a chimpanzee has to learn how to be a good mother.

     Marci, who is now a young woman, is studying to become a medical doctor. Her concern to make this a better world is an essential aspect of her adult personality. The Conner parents, successful nurturers of her caring love, marvel at the loving daughter that is theirs.

     Ronny has followed his father's footsteps. After studying forestry he has become a fire fighter in the western forests. Proudly he tells his parents that his crew saves not only trees, but also people and their houses. In turn his parents describe with pleasure and satisfaction what a wonderful caring young man their son has become.

     Now, years after these and similar stories have unfolded, I wonder about the deep morality they imply. I marvel at what seems to be a basic principle of human interaction - a fundamental canon that determines our lives. It is this:

Only after we have learned to kiss the "boo-boos" of our fellow creatures can our capacity and therefore our yearnings for the big loves be realized.
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© 2001 Renée Fuller
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