He could not have been more than 3 years old. The little guy, occupied with toys displayed on a pharmacy shelf, was sitting alone on the floor at the front of the store. I noticed him as I weaved my cart in and out of the aisles searching for the items I came for. My eyes swept the immediate area. There was no adult in sight. After several minutes, I circled back. He was still on his own, unaccounted for. My concern grew.
“Where’s your mommy?” “Do you have a grown up with you?” I asked. The boy looked up at me, sweet-faced and quizzical. I wasn’t getting anywhere. If his safety was compromised in any way, I couldn’t ignore it.
I alerted the cashier and he, in turn, called the manager. At this point, another customer, a woman in business attire from a nearby office, overheard my conversation with the cashier and also became concerned.
But here is where it gets dicey. The boy’s mother comes rushing back from wherever she was in the store. She looked utterly harried. My heart immediately went out to her. Just as I was about to let her know of my relief, Biz-Lady begins lacing into the mother, firing a stinging string of epithets: Leaving your child alone is unacceptable! You are so disgusting! You shouldn’t have children!
I was dumbstruck. It’s one thing to express a brief concern to a stranger but quite another to appoint oneself a brutal tongue-lasher. What type of response did the screamer think she was going to get from the mom? Sadly, that’s the point. She put herself first, never considering the mother in any way or the effect of verbally attacking her in front of her young child. She was more interested in shaming and embarrassing the mother. The woman’s goal, it seemed, was to feel good about herself.
Let me be clear: Children must not be left unsupervised under any circumstances. I don’t know why this mother didn’t keep better tabs on her child. Lapse in judgment perhaps-we’ve all had those. She was lucky all ended well. Still, I think the stranger’s reaction was dreadful. She knew nothing about the mom. If she felt she needed to react, there were more appropriate ways to do so.
I was desperate to defuse the situation but only had a split second to figure things out. I wanted to come to the mom’s defense but I feared further escalation of a situation that had no real resolution. Chastising the woman for her vitriol wasn’t going to help. I hoped to find a way to reach out to the mother and perhaps find a way to soften the impact but never had the chance. Mercifully for them, mother and child quickly left the scene.
This incident may be an extreme example of a subtler problem but once again raises a question I’ve long been struggling with. Is basic decency between otherwise civil people on the decline? Is empathy? Research studies from 2010 have indeed found, among college students, declining empathy levels for over 30 years while self-centered behavior has risen. http://tinyurl.com/kobwsre
When did character traits past generations took for granted—courtesy, decency and respect–become too high an expectation? Is even a friendly acknowledgement between acquaintances too lofty a goal?
Dr. Brené Brown is also bothered by the growing lack of heart and simple kindness. The research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work has spent years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. She discusses her findings further in her 2012 New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
According to Brown, shame’s power is in making us “feel trapped, powerless and isolated.” Its danger, she says, is its ability to make us feel alone, different and outside our social circles. Empathy, however, according to Brown, is shame’s antidote.
Whether or not Bible is your thing or the upcoming holiday of Passover is one you observe, it is hard to ignore lessons of empathy in one of the oldest stories of freedom. For instance, Moses, raised by Pharoah’s daughter as a privileged child, deeply felt slaves’ suffering. He went outside his comfort zone and imagined what it would be like to be someone else. As a result, he was not only able to physically free the oppressed but show that they deserved lives of worth.
In another example, tradition requires readers of the story to see themselves as having been freed from slavery. Again, vicarious experience requires identifying with the other.
Lastly, tradition again makes certain we recognize enemies’ suffering by spilling wine, symbolizing that the joy of freedom is incomplete, having come at the cost of others’ lives. Everyone’s emotions are asked to be understood.
Reminders for essential decency surround us. We don’t always take note. I hope we can spot the signs more easily and catch ourselves before we take more than we give.