Driving home from our local arboretum, I was thinking about the loveliness that is fall, humming along to the radio while golden leaves drifted over my windshield and sun streamed into the car. I was thinking about pumpkins, the scarecrow display we had just seen, the bright splashes of color on the trees, when a grumpy, nap-needing four year old piped up from the backseat,
“I don’t like humans.” O-kay.
“Why’s that?” I asked, sighing a little to myself and (reluctantly) turning the radio’s volume down.
“They do bad stuff” she grumped. “They litter.” (Had she just seen some trash along the road?) “They know they’re not supposed to, and they do it anyway. That’s why I don’t like them.”
Hmmm. What to say to that? Humans do do bad stuff all the time, and most of the time they know it’s bad, excusing or explaining it away with talk that is empty, opaque or blame-laying (on someone else, of course). How to explain to a four year old that human beings are capable of the worst atrocities, from genocide that wipes out millions to greed that destroys the health of both people and the rest of the planet? That people are greedy, selfish, cruel? That yes, we really do do bad stuff all the time? I wondered all of this while driving through our neighborhood, and then drove past our local firehouse and had my answer.
Yes, people do bad things. Some of the worst things. And it’s sad and terrible and shouldn’t happen, even though it does. But people do good things too, some of the best things. The very best things we could ever imagine. I talked to my daughter about firefighters.
It’s a little hard to admit to your child that you might not be capable of heroics, but I had to be honest. I don’t know if I could run into a burning building to save a stranger. My own children? Not a moment’s hesitation. Someone I’ve never met? I don’t know. And yet there are people who do it all the time, even though they might be afraid. Even though they have families of their own. There are people who volunteer to do it, not even accepting money for their bravery. That’s goodness.
We talked about doctors who volunteer all over the world, helping people who can’t afford the care otherwise. We talked about doctors who right now are in Western Africa combating a deadly epidemic, not because they live there or are being forced to, but because they chose to. Because they feel it is the right thing to do. That’s heroism.
There is a song that comes on the station we stream on our computer (the Raffi channel!) with a line that goes “What can one little person do? What can one little me or you do?” and I thought of that while talking with my daughter. Not all of us can run into a burning building, or battle deadly disease, but we can all do something, every last one us.
Something to make the world a better place instead of a poorer one. Something to show how good human beings are capable of being. It could be traveling to a ravaged country to give aid, or shoveling an elderly neighbor’s driveway, free of charge. Volunteering at a soup kitchen or dropping off donations. Holding open a door. Lending a hand. We have no idea how our compassion and generosity will affect the lives of others. One small act of kindness a day could change the world.
It was a lot for a four year old to take in, but I’m glad we ended up having the conversation we did. Everyone, no matter how young, should know and feel strength in their own ability to do good. Because every day, the world is full of people making choices of astonishing courage and compassion. Let’s join them.