Wednesday, January 20, 2010


One of my daughter's favorite activities is watching old cartoons on YouTube. She tends to go for Disney's Silly Symphonies, Pink Panther cartoons, or even something as modern as my personal favorite: Pixar Shorts. Of course, inevitably in the course of searching, watching and getting recommendations, we eventually end up somewhere unanticipated and stumble upon items at times outlandish and at times surprisingly good.

One such example was Emily's Journey with Gaucher Disease (both Part I and Part II). For whatever reason, my inquisitive little daughter (who is equal parts artistically expressive and scientifically investigative) became obsessed with this video for over a week. She would request it, watch it multiple times in one sitting.... and eventually started to point out telltale signs she had what Emily had. "See how my belly sticking out, Mama? I can't eat... maybe me sick."

Rather than discourage her fascination with the video, I let her watch it as much as she liked and tried to address her questions and worry patiently. I figured such exploration on her part would make it easier to discuss things if and when anyone in the family became seriously ill, and it would hopefully give her a greater range of understanding/compassion/empathy any time she encountered someone struggling with an illness. Yet, I am glad the "Gaucher Disease" phase passed and we are back to The Ugly Duckling and Ferdinand the Bull.

Just the other day, we were doing our usual gallivanting around YouTube and my daughter happily poked her finger at a video we had never seen before: The Little Match Girl. I didn't realize it at the time, but it's attributed to Disney/Pixar and the version we found relies solely on animation and music.

As an education buff, this was especially interesting to me, because it required my daughter to unravel and create the narrative for herself... and it lead to many interesting questions. We discussed poverty, homelessness, orphans, fantasy/reality, and eventually... death. She didn't realize what happened in the story the first time we viewed it, but a different version with narration (requested by my daughter, of course) provided insight into the ending and gave the entire story new meaning because we have often talked about death, dying, and the many theories of what happens after death.

It was an equally moving and sobering experience because I realized how little suffering she has been exposed to in her short life. As a parent, I consider this a blessing in a way because it means we've been lucky, and it means she feels safe and protected in this family. The idea of an adult mistreating a child, of a child being alone in the world, of a child not having enough to eat - all of this is foreign to her.

As a novice Buddhist and lifelong spiritual spelunker, it also struck me as a crossroads in her development as a human being and increased an awareness of my responsibility to her in way of tangible and intangible guidance.

Were she to continue living in ignorance of the suffering of others, she might become less able to respond with gratitude to her numerous blessings. She might assume everyone has an equal experience and live her life in blindness to the reality and effect of privilege and power across societies. She might never learn the importance of donating her time, resources, or energy to causes of compassion or justice.

And in the wake of that afternoon, my mind has continued to race over possible ways to help her gain knowledge and experience in this area of life without creating undue psychological or emotional hardship. Empathy is an integral skill and, I believe, a foundational building block in learning to effectively navigate interpersonal relationships with respect and kindness through one's entire life. I want my daughter to be able to empathize with others because I know it will help her become a considerate, responsible, and generous adult.

Again I continue my tightrope walk along the middle way... seeking balance in an effort to discover the blemishes of my little "i" self while pursuing a course of right action for the benefit of my and my family's growth. Not too fast, not too slow. Not too much, not too little. Honest, but gentle. Firm, but malleable. Strong, but always openly human.

May you notice someone invisible to you up until today. May you respond with empathy to the experience of others.

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