Growing in Compassion

Of our three core values — independence, responsibility, and compassion — the third is the hardest to nail down. While independence and responsibility are baked into the basic model of the school, with freedom and democracy working together to embed these values into our students, compassion is fuzzier, and developing it doesn’t always look so compassionate.

First, let’s define what we mean by compassion. This isn’t just “be nice” or “help others.” It’s a much deeper process that involves truly listening to one another, understanding each other (as much as one person can understand another), and acting in a way that demonstrates this understanding. Additionally, compassion is not just for others, but for yourself also.

With this definition, compassion is one of the hardest things to cultivate. In fact, most adults don’t do this well. Even the staff at The Open School are growing in our own compassion for ourselves and others. It’s clear that we cannot make someone be compassionate by reprimanding them or asking them to parrot our language (“say you’re sorry”). Compassion grows when the environment is built consciously, when conflicts are treated as opportunities, and when compassion is experienced first-hand.

At The Open School, we help this process along in a few ways. First and foremost, age mixing means that relationships develop between people of all ages. Older kids take care of younger ones, and younger kids look up to older ones. The younger kids feel cared for by more than just the adults. They see that we all have the ability to take care of one another. Additionally, the fact that we are spending time with one another without a schedule or agenda means that there’s ample time to develop deep, caring relationships.

I get to witness examples of naturally-developed compassion on a daily basis. Kids share without being forced; they give hugs to sad friends and words of encouragement to those who are having a tough time. When a kid falls down while playing and scrapes her knee, the first to respond is almost always another kid — getting the first aid kit, wetting a paper towel, or finding someone who is more experienced at administering aid. An injured person always has at least one other person there with him, squeezing his shoulder or empathizing with his pain, while the injury is being tended.

One day, three girls were eating lunch together when eight-year-old Ivy dropped her entire lunch on the floor. Ivy was distraught. Her lunch was all over the ground and she had nothing to eat. The other two girls, aged 5 and 6, immediately jumped into action. They helped her pick up her lunch and offered to share theirs. Ivy’s tears turned to tears of joy. This was an opportunity for her friends to show her how much they cared for her, and they did it freely and with open hearts. They didn’t need an adult to step in to mediate or problem-solve. It seemed to me that this sad accident effected a closer friendship than what could have been cultivated without a spilled lunch. A few weeks later, one of the other girls spilled her lunch, and not surprisingly, Ivy happily split her own lunch with her sad friend.

The phenomenon of people sharing with loved ones may not be that surprising. It’s a much longer process to develop compassion for someone you don’t know well, or maybe don’t even like or agree with. One of the ways our school cultivates this kind of understanding is by providing an environment where there are no off-limits topics. Our students discuss politics and religion freely, and discover that there are as many viewpoints on these issues as there are people. If students can have open (and occasionally heated) discussions with others with whom they disagree, and maintain strong friendships in spite of their difference of viewpoint, they will grow into more compassionate, understanding adults whose relationships cross ideological lines. Then, perhaps we will have a more compassionate world.

Our restorative justice model provides continuous opportunity to develop compassion. Since everyone at some point serves on Civics Board and everyone at some point gets written up (even staff), we all learn to understand the perspective of the person sitting on the other side. Sometimes I have the hard job of deciding how to deal with to a rule-breaker, and sometimes I’m a rule-breaker wishing for mercy and understanding. Whichever chair I’m sitting in, I’ve been in the other one. I understand the difficulty of administering justice and I understand the desire for mercy.

Our school has recently formed an Emotional Welfare Committee tasked with paying attention to the emotional needs of our school members. I hope to write a longer description of this committee someday, but at present we are still working out the details. One of the things that this committee offers is a weekly non-compulsory Circle. At Circle, everyone gets a chance to speak, and everyone gets a chance to listen. You know that if you come to Circle you will be heard. Maybe you’re only sharing who your favorite superhero is or what you did last weekend, but you know that people are listening and learning something about you. Experiencing this depth of being heard can be life-changing. It allows you to value yourself and others in a deeper way — a way that goes beyond niceness into true compassion.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *