Compassion Means Seeking the Why

Greenhill School’s campus filled with energy to the point of “buzzing” this week as approximately 1290 students flooded campus for the 2015-2016 school year. Students and teachers, new and returning, welcomed each other with smiles and hugs. Division Heads across campus implored them to think about what they’d like to accomplish this year. Each division head also talked about the annual theme for the year, Compassion. Read below to see Head of Upper School Laura Ross’ poignant address to Upper School students.

As you all hopefully already know, our theme for the year is compassion. So what is compassion? If empathy is defined as taking on the perspective and feeling the emotions of another, compassion can be seen as the action step after empathy – it’s empathy with the desire to help or to take some other positive action. But here’s the big question – how do we develop empathy, the first step on the road to compassion, in the first place? Well, we all have to actually begin to listen to and actually know each other. If we talk about each other and not to each other it’s very difficult to develop empathy and then to behave compassionately.

We have approximately 70 new members of our Upper School community this year, including both teachers and students. What are you going to do to make them feel welcome? What are you going to do when you see someone you don’t know in one of your classes or in the locker room? How will you begin to get to know them? This responsibility is on all of us. But here’s the wonderful secret: this isn’t a difficult duty that takes anything away from our lives. The cool thing about compassion is that practicing it has long-lasting effects on your emotional and even physical well-being. Research studies on the lasting effects of even short-term compassion training programs show them to have a profound impact. I am going to email all of you a link to the Greater Good Science Institute after this meeting to give you some more information and further resources about the benefits of compassion after this meeting.

I heard a child psychologist speak at a conference this summer and she said something simple that I found extremely compelling. She said that it was our job as educators to always “seek the why.” I would expand that definition to be true for everyone who is together in a community, like the one we have at Greenhill. What it means is that if you are confronted with something you don’t understand in another person, it’s critically important not to just say, “wow, that’s a crazy opinion/idea/perspective that I absolutely don’t agree with.” It’s important to engage in respectful dialogue with each other to “seek the why” – “tell me more about that and why you feel that way?” rather than dismissal of something that doesn’t feel right to you. We all come to this community with different backgrounds, families, faith traditions, and parental expectations. We are all shaped by a multitude of factors that give rise to different perspectives on how we view the world. We work hard to make sure that the Greenhill community is composed of people who are going to have lots of independent ideas and are not going to agree on everything, but if we just put the community together and walked away and said “we’re done!” we’d be failing our school and each other.

Compassion means seeking the why. It means active engagement. It means attempting to understand why someone feels a certain way and taking action to truly understand their perspective. It doesn’t mean agreeing with everything everyone says, but it means we have a responsibility to each other and to this community to try to understand each other. I know that we don’t exactly have great modeling of this kind of engagement in the greater world at large. We live in a time of internet shaming, Twitter feuds, and extreme partisan behavior. Our country seems to be increasingly polarized along political and social lines, and no one seems interested in actually listening to each other. There are sensitive, thoughtful and compassionate people to be found in every part of the religious, societal and political spectrum. Just because someone tells you they identify with a particular political ideal or religious tradition does not mean you can then assume everything they believe. We are all intelligent and complicated people and we cannot and should not ever make assumptions about others without talking to them first. In my opinion, it’s hurting our country and it will hurt our school community too if we let that happen here. Frankly, I know it has happened – and it’s our job to all work together to do our best to not let it continue to happen.

So again, it all comes back to compassion. The active act of attempting to know and understand another person. So let’s commit ourselves to that ideal this year, and let’s talk about it and do something about it when we see it not happening. We owe it to each other and we owe it to ourselves. Welcome back to school – I couldn’t be more excited to see you all. Have a great day.

Click here to read about Compassion and please take the time to learn more about Tina Payne Bryson’s work by visiting her website.