MARY GORDON was interviewed by JUDITH NELSON at the Spirit of Humanity Forum in Iceland in 2019. In part 2, she shares experiences from her own childhood to demonstrate how empathy develops in children.
Q: You talked about the generations and their effect on children. How important do you feel generations are – families, cultures – in helping children grow up in a safe society or safe place?
MG: Well, children grow up in families. Lucky children grow up in communities. But not every family is part of a community, and your safety net only goes as far as your community net. So families do have the ability to give children what they need to grow up, which is unconditional love, recognition. Society is only as safe as the way we support our families.
I always look at: What are the policies in place? How do you cover vulnerability? The most important relationship in life, which is pretty much a template for every other relationship, is the parent infant relationship. What are the policies that allow that relationship to be nurtured? Do you have a parental leave policy? We have some participants here from the United States, one of two countries in the entire world without a parental leave policy.
So here we have a gap or a disconnect between what we know from research, the policies we make, and the programs that happen. I think if we recognize the capacity of every person in a democracy to participate in a meaningful way, we need people to stand up and claim their rights in the society – the right to belong, the right to have a voice. And you develop those things in the family.
It is the hand that un-mats the bubblegum in the hair.
That is the hand you’ve got to hold.
The invisible hand that really cares for
and does the hard work of child-rearing,
that’s the hand we have to nurture.
If you nurture the nurturer,
you will have a nurturing society.
The university of the kitchen table is where you enable life. It’s where children develop their values. It’s where the wallpaper could tell decades of stories, the tears and the laughter, the capacity to enjoy one another, to see one another, to feel one another. And I think we sometimes overlook the power of the family: it is the enabler. When the family is in trouble, society is in trouble.
It is the hand that un-mats the bubblegum in the hair. That is the hand you’ve got to hold. The invisible hand that really cares for and does the hard work of child-rearing, that’s the hand we have to nurture. If you nurture the nurturer, you will have a nurturing society. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of holding the family in the palm of your hand, and then the family will be the strength in the community. You need policies that say, yes, the family is important, yes, education is important. And if you get it right in the family, education is easy. It’s challenging if you don’t get it right in the family, and it is of course children who pay the price.
Q: We live in an age where families can be quite fractured, and children are often brought up by single parents. Is there any help you feel children need in those circumstances? Or do we apply the same ideas and expectations?
MG: My expectation is that every child grows up in one relationship where the adult says, “I will lay down my life for you,” and it’s usually a parent. Research says it doesn’t have to be two parents, it doesn’t have to be a mother and father. It’s about dedication and devotion and putting that child before yourself. It’s wonderful and liberating to know that a single parent can do an excellent job in raising a child, but you must have policies in society to support that single parent.
I don’t think there’s any one formula for healthy childhood development. I mean if you look at an individual child, they all come from a different basket. You can’t order, “I’ll have these traits please.”
Helping children learn to relate only happens
when they can understand how you feel.
They have to have empathy.
And then you’ve got epigenetics: the gene pool you’re born with interacts with the experiences you have, to create the person who is. And shame on us if we don’t orchestrate experiences for every child so that they will have an appreciation for whom they are, what they are capable of, and have the ability to reach out to others. I think we have a crisis of connection in society. If you don’t have empathy you don’t have the ability to be in a relationship.
I was asked some years ago by the UN on World Literacy Day to speak with the wife of the former president of the United States and two other people on a panel. I said, “What would you like me to speak about?” and they said, “We have heard that you said ‘As important as it is for children to learn to read at school, if they fail to learn to relate we will have failed societies.’” Helping children learn to relate only happens when they can understand how you feel. They have to have empathy.
I think we live in an emotionally-illiterate world.
I think the secret to ending all the “-isms” in the world,
the secret to peaceful coexistence,
is to be able to see the humanity in the other.
And this Spirit of Humanity,
this beautiful concept, is based on empathy.
You have to learn to read “traditionally” to pull yourself out of poverty, but if you don’t learn to read emotions you’ll never learn to pull yourself out of isolation. And I think the secret to ending all the “-isms” in the world, the secret to peaceful coexistence, is to be able to see the humanity in the other. And this Spirit of Humanity, this beautiful concept, is based on empathy.
Q: The Dalai Lama has praised the work you are doing. Have you been inspired by him? And do you think there’s a place in the world at the moment for spiritual leaders?
MG: Yes, the Dalai Lama is hugely inspirational. The lovely thing about being with him is that he is so present in the moment with you that you forget all the other people watching. Apart from all his wonderful writings and philosophies, his capacity to be present and to connect to others is even more impressive. He invited me to a meeting in India and the meeting was on how we end suffering. He believes that we need empathy to end suffering.
Coming to your question about spirituality in the world, I think it’s an untapped source of power and joy. Sometimes we are so busy getting on with life that we almost miss the inner life. I think every person has in them the kindling to burst into a flame and to have a spiritual life which doesn’t have to have a name, a stamp or a brand. It doesn’t need to be part of a team. To realize the essence of humanity you can’t just put it in bottle and sell it. It’s something that’s incalculable, it’s something that defies description, but without it you’re hardly human.
I think when you allow yourself to be vulnerable
you can connect very readily to other people.
Q: What do you do to keep so happy and positive?
MG: Well, I’m pretty well deliriously happy all the time, so I guess I landed lucky in life. Coming from a very big family, where my dad gave most of our money away, it was multi-generational, so I haven’t suffered in life. Most people suffer, but I really haven’t had challenges, and I’ve had support. I’ve never been spoiled, but I’ve had support. So I’m very aware and appreciative of that.
Whenever I had a concern, especially when as a little child, there was always a lap to sit on. And when I was a teenager, there was always an ear. So I learned to be vulnerable and not to feel embarrassed about that. I think when you allow yourself to be vulnerable you can connect very readily to other people.
I have a very deep chasm of friendships, temporary and long term. I get a lot of joy from my family. I now have four little grandbabies, and my definition of a good week has changed. I have been accused of being a workaholic, particularly by my husband, but it’s not “work” what I do. What I do is joyful play. The world is endlessly fascinating and full of undiscovered treasures, usually in people, but my new definition of a grand week is if I get to give one bath to one little grandbaby. So wherever I am, I always try to get home to have at least one weekend day to give a bath.
I think my spirituality is through relationships with others. I don’t have a formal spiritual practice. I grew up in a convent school, so I guess I had very traditional religion as a child. Every time I left my home, one of my grandparents (both my grandmothers lived with us) would bless me with holy water and say, “Jesus, Joseph and Mary, we pray be with us always on this day.” So I got a kiss and was blessed. I mean, how could you go wrong!
I don’t have that formally, but I have the essence of it. I have in my heart all the good feelings that came from that nurturing, which had a brand. I’m a “noname” now. I’ve lost my brand, but I’m quite happy for that as I can fit in with anyone. I can fit in with a Sufi experience and enjoy and appreciate that. I have good friends who are Muslim. My husband’s Jewish so I run a Jewish home. I can do Easter and Passover, and I think it’s all grand.
I have in my heart all the good feelings
that came from that nurturing, which had a brand.
I’m a “noname” now.
I’ve lost my brand, but I’m quite happy
for that as I can fit in with anyone.
Students at the university would come to our house for Sunday dinner. On Sunday mornings, my dad would take one of us to visit people in the hospital – elderly people who had nobody to visit them, because Newfoundland is an island and there wasn’t a highway. Those who came from far away for the hospital in St. John’s had no one coming to visit them. It was a good chance for me to hang out with my dad, so I’d often go.
And my dad would say, “Now Skipper, would you like me to pray with you or would you like me to recite?”
We called all the elderly men “Skipper” because it was a fishing society and Skipper was a term of endearment. And my father could recite Shakespeare.
“Or would you like the little one to sing a song?”
They would always say they wanted the little one to sing a song. You know, I would hide behind the charts at the bottom of the wrought iron bed and sing the song to the Skipper. It really showed me that we’re all the same, whether we’re old or young.
My mother would take me to deliver food, coal and clothing to people who didn’t have them. She’d pack a couple of us in the car and collect clothes for people and coal, because in those days coal was the way we heated the house. We would go and deliver them to people who had a lot of children, as we had very big families then.
She would be so respectful – she would stay and have a cup of tea with the lady of the house, no matter what the squalor, no matter how dirty the dishes. So if you were the child who was there, you would stay and have a cup of tea. I remember one time I turned the cup around because it was quite stained. It doesn’t mean it was dirty, but I guess I was being judgmental.
Well, as I got into the car afterwards my mother said, “And Missy-moo, what makes you think you’re better? What makes you think your germs are better? Do you know how insulting that was?”
I thought I’d been very quiet, but her point was that we are all a step away from trouble and it doesn’t make you less human because you’re poor, or you’re sick, or you’re old, or you’re in jail. Why are you in jail? Because something bad happened when you were a kid and you got into a bad trajectory, right?
So though I never suffered, I saw life much bigger than most children. I had a comfort level working in prisons when I was older. After school I would volunteer with the women prisoners and play Crazy Eights card game with them. I could go to anyone’s home and feel comfortable because they were just like me, except different in their luck.
I think life is just about being in relationship.
When you close the curtain on your life,
you’re not counting dollars,
you’re counting loving relationships.
My whole strategy in Roots of Empathy is different from most organizations. You should see the business schools fall about in gales of laughter when I tell them what my strategy is. We’ve been very successful with no long-term strategic plans. I call it “strategic serendipity.” If good stuff happens, go with it. If so-called good stuff happens and you have a sneaking suspicion it’s not, don’t go with it. It’s not in any business school, but it works for me because what I have is a very good gut. I know a good person. I can’t tell you how I know, but I can tell you there are a lot of good people here in this Spirit of Humanity Forum.
I don’t work with anybody with whom I don’t share a purpose, even if they want to give me millions of dollars, which has happened. And I attribute that to my childhood. Nobody taught me anything in particular. I was the middle child, so nobody paid me much attention, mercifully. I never had any huge expectation on me, but I had a chance to learn from my father. The other thing he did was on Saturday nights: he would prepare an envelope, cut down the middle, for the church the next day. Half of it was to keep the church going locally, and the other half was for international donation. He’d take the globe out and say to whoever had come, “Okay,” and we’d choose a place.
We’d choose, and he’d tell us about that place: “In that country they don’t have democracy,” or “There’s great poverty,” or “There are floods,” or “There’s famine,” or whatever it would be. We’d find a charity in that place and he would make out the check, and he’d say, “Mary, you’re not going to get your party shoes, because there’s a little girl in India who doesn’t have any shoes.”
I never had new clothes ever. I had my sister’s clothes and there was nothing wrong with them. I didn’t begrudge it because I felt the money was being used in a really meaningful way. I had names for all those people – we created a whole scenario of who the money was going to – and it gave me the sense that I was this little “squeak” in a great big world of people who were just like me.
We did our bit. It allowed us to feel connected with a sense of empowerment that we could do a little bit of something. It makes you happy to be able to be in relationship, and it makes you happy to volunteer.
I was surrounded by volunteerism all the time and never thought of it as volunteering. It was just what we did on Sunday morning – we went up to the hospital or to the old age home, and we delivered clothes. I think all of us were happy, because we appreciated the opportunity to be in relationship with others.
I think life is just about being in relationship. When you close the curtain on your life, you’re not counting dollars, you’re counting loving relationships. To have the ability without any effort at all, to have that learning, is a gift. It can come to you through suffering, but I skated through life, I must say. I never really had any suffering.
Q: It does sound like you had an incredible dialogue with your parents, and they were thoughtful about educating you in what really mattered. That must have been quite a privilege in many ways.
MG: At the time I didn’t think so! And sometimes looking at the globe and deciding “where,” and learning about it, got a bit tedious to tell you the truth. But I had the sense it was important. And my parents – they weren’t teachers, but they were “reachers” and they knew how to reach people – were both very modest people, who would be embarrassed to hear me saying this. They’re both gone now.
There was a recognition of each person in the family as a person. I remember when we graduated from the card table (there were so many of us) to the real, big dinner table where we could be part of the conversation, we were not allowed to talk about people or things, so that the dialogue could not become critical. We could talk about politics, but we couldn’t criticize politicians. We also couldn’t talk about people being ill, as my dad would have to leave the table, he had such empathy.
So we talked about ideas. It was a wonderful nurturing of children, to listen and to ask questions. It sounds formal, but it wasn’t formal. It was pretty clear that when we came together, there was an opportunity to talk about something bigger than ourselves. Nobody thought they were important is what I am saying. And I think that’s a good thing.
Interviewed by JUDITH NELSON
Mary is recognized internationally as an award-winning social entrepreneur, educator, author, child advocate and parenting expert, whose programs are informed by empathy. In 1996 she created the Roots of Empathy program, which is now offered in many countries, and in 2005 she created the Seeds of Empathy program for 3- to 5-year-olds in childcare. She... Read more