“The more you grow into a helpful person yourself, the happier you’ll find this world of ours is.”
~ Mister Fred Rogers

Another day, another day to explain to young people how the power of words can intensify hate or healing. How a childhood playground taunt or a tease in reference to Full Metal Jacket is more than “kids being kids” or “relax, don’t PC-police me,” and can lead to intergenerational psychological damage, not to mention fatal consequences.

In the midst of ongoing pandemics and prejudice, many of us are trying to get “back to normal.” As college decisions roll out for some students who can still consider college, the attention to the next class is well under way. Talks about which AP class to take continue, as if these discussions were stuck in a time machine bubble where the world hasn’t changed. In one recent talk I listened to, the presenter said with good intention that colleges are looking for students with community service to demonstrate whether they are the kind of student who gives back. Great. They went on to say that if you have to work to help your family, work. If you don’t need to do, make sure you include some kind of community service in yourself. Even better, they said, make sure you put something down that shows you are helping your community during the pandemic. And, “if you haven’t done anything, you can start. We can help you find something to put down.”

While the presenter seemed to have the full intention of sharing how important service is, one could also interpret their comments as, “if you’re wealthy enough, put something – anything – down that shows you’re not a selfish person playing with the Xbox through the pandemic. If you need to work, well, sorry, community service is for those who can afford it to put something – anything – down to look good.”

Most students know that community service isn’t just something to “put down” on a college resume. Most of us recognize that service is an act by which we are not only thinking about ourselves, but also how we aid and support those around us. How service begins with attending to the small things – what we say, what we do, how we stand up for others around us. And yes, it begins with those things we do even when others aren’t looking or even if we cannot put it on a college resume.

Service is a demonstration of compassion. The roots of the word “compassion” is to “suffer with.” This means the ability to recognize suffering and pain, face and be with the difficulties, and still be moved to do something to help alleviate that suffering – of self and others. Much of the recent attention in education has been on SEL and mindfulness, which are foundations on which to work towards compassion.

Contrary to the misunderstanding that compassion is a soft, squishy thing for the nice kid who gets beat up in the playground or the receiver of name-calling, compassion is the toughest thing to practice in real life. Noting anthropologist Joan Halifax’s more nuanced definition, compassion is “the capacity to be attentive to the experience of others, to wish the best for others, and to sense what will truly serve others.” It requires tremendous courage and honesty because it requires one to acknowledge what it is happening – the good, the bad, the ugly.

In our framework, we look at the “8Cs,” or eight doorways in which we can cultivate our capacity for compassion. Each one of these amplify each other; alone, they are insufficient, together, they become generative:

  • Centeredness: having self- and other-awareness, cultivating mindfulness;
  • Change: being agile in transitions, having adaptability through uncertainty;
  • Conflict: embracing a paradox mindset (kids are natural at being able to hold multiple truths the same time); inviting healthy dialogue and disagreement;
  • Curiosity: staying outward focused for creativity; having a bias for innovation;
  • Chucklesome: using healthy humor to create space and connect; prioritizing joy;
  • Connection: creating ecosystems of belonging; centering inclusion;
  • Candor: living with authenticity; bringing honesty to self and others/
  • Courage: acting with purpose; making decisions with integrity.

These doorways aren’t just “nice to have.” From psychology to neuroscience to business leadership studies, having the keys to these doors can unlock not only our potential for stronger leadership, but also to serve and relieve the suffering of those around us. Adults often have a tough time, fumbling with these keys. What might we do to support our students so that they can get curious and investigate each door so that they fumble less than we do and get a jump start at the gate?

  • (Re)define compassion

By better understanding what compassion is, we can check our own biases in speaking about it. Often, we hear each other say, “I know it’s important, but I’m not a soft person, so the word doesn’t really do it for me.” When children hear this, they often interpret it as “be strong OR be compassionate.” And while children naturally lean towards kindness, societal expectations of the trope, “nice guys finish last,” means they will lean away from their natural predilections for fear of being seen “weak.” When we start learning our understanding of the strength and courage compassion requires and communicate it, compassion may shed the inaccuracies of how the media portrays it.

  • Ask what service means

Rather than just inform students that they “need” to do service (for the sake of a college resume), ask them what matters to them, how they empathize with others, and what motivates them to want to help relieve the suffering of others? Require them to reflect on their reasons behind their actions, rather than simply to list it on some “must do” checklist.

  • Choose a door

Invite students to choose one the 8 “doors” to peek behind and go deeper to explore. Allow them to share what they want to investigate and practice, and how that “door” may help them to cultivate more compassion. For example, if a student is less confident about being honest with themselves or others, hold space for them to consider what is creating a barrier. Is it not having the tools to figure out how “who they are?” Or might it be fear of damaging a relationship? Whatever it is, allow the students to choose their path and to get curious, moving beyond the surface word.

Each of the “8Cs,” or eight doors to cultivate compassion open to even greater opportunities to learn and grow. The more we understand and embrace each of these doorways, and the more we can integrate them, the more we can not only speak or act with compassion, but also be compassion.