Thursday, 17 November 2016

Tough Love

Once, when I was in Grade 2, my teacher had all of us save our milk carton from lunch. Afterward we folded it into a flower pot, filled it with dirt, and planted a single bean in it. Then we lined up our little pots on the windowsill and waited.

To nobody's surprise, within a week each had produced a shoot. Our teacher then divided us into groups and issued new orders. Group Number 1 got to leave their bean plants in the sun and care for them as usual, but everyone else had to stop watering theirs, relocate it to a closet, sit it on the radiator, or the like.

I was ordered to put mine in the refrigerator.

What happened next remains as vivid to me as this morning.

I have a loving, if independent, nature, and in the few days I'd been tending it I'd conceived an affection for the bright green tendril striving upward. I also wasn't a moron. What seven-year-old doesn't know what happens to a living thing in the faculty room fridge? Years later, as a teacher myself, I could have prepared a better lesson plan than that during passing period. Using nothing more than what I had in my desk.

On a Friday afternoon.

I hung back as the rest of my group came forward, hoping she wouldn't tally us. But she did.

"Robert?" she demanded. "Where's Robert? Don't you have a plant?"

I mumbled the affirmative.

"Bring it here."

I hesitated, carton in hand.

"Do you hear me? Bring it here."

"But…" I stammered, barely audible. "I don't want to kill it."

"What?" she snapped, incredulous.

I raised my eyes.

"I don't want to kill it."

At this point my teacher pitched what can only be called a power tantrum. "Oh, I see!" she snarked, enraged beyond self-respect. "Everyone else is participating, everyone else has to do what they're supposed to, but Robert (her voice dripped) doesn't want to kill his!

"Everybody look at Robert! He's not like us! He's special!"

I began to sob, and she continued to demonstrate why I have so little respect for authority. (And possibly why my attitude toward women was for so long uncharacteristically hostile.)

"You put that bean plant on the cart THIS INSTANT!" she commanded.

I did. But I didn't stop crying for some time.

Half a century later, I'm just starting to catch a whisper of public commentary about the state of empathy on this backwater planet. Not much. Not enough. But a few writers, here and there, are beginning to question the fitness of our souls to ensure our continued survival.

Empathy is the defining human strength, the single advantage that pushed our fangless, clawless arse to the top of this heap.

But we have a knotty relationship with the stuff of our success. The "toughness" and "courage" we admire in leaders and ourselves amounts most often to cruelty, self-centredness, and indifference. Those who betray a glimmer of "weakness" – empathy, compassion, sophistication, humanity, evolutionary superiority – are abused and ridiculed. The rest of us are conditioned to look on silently.

Which is why empathy needs claws and fangs.

In my life I've consistently been punished more severely for empathy than for cruelty. When guilty of the latter, I've been disciplined; when the former, I've been humiliated, ejected, and blacklisted.

Therefore, it's increasingly critical that decent, fully-evolved human beings learn the difference between insensitivity and just pissing others off. We must refuse to pipe down when advocating forgiveness, generosity, and the objective analysis of karma, regardless of sneers and threats. The alternative is what we already have, what's killing us progressively faster: government by the least human. Whether national, local, or in some grade school classroom.

Most importantly, we must actively patrol the state of empathy in our communities, and teach future generations to honour and protect their own evolved souls and defend those of others.

So check it out, bitch: this entire species depends on the beans we produce.

Stand aside, please.

(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson. New Life [photo] courtesy of Juanita Mulder and
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