So, I had a rather disturbing experience at the park today.
See, sometimes I like to go to the park and swing on the swings for a bit, when there aren't a lot of kids around. It's a sort of calming, meditative activity for me. Today, since it was warm and sunny out, there were more kids than usual, so I was being a bit more careful as the littler ones sometimes run into my swinging trajectory, and I need to be ready to perform evasive maneuvers in case that happens. Of course, about 99% of the time their parents are watching and they grab them before anything terrible happens. Either way, I have never, ever hit a kid, and have taken great care to maintain that record.
Today, though, as I was swinging, this little boy (about 7 years old, I'd guess) came and stood RIGHT next to my swing. Just to be careful, I slowed down and sort of drifted back and forth, ready to stop. He just stared at me for a few more seconds and then left. A few minutes later, I was swinging full-force (there weren't a lot of kids around at this point) when his little boy suddenly appears again, and this time he stands right in front of me. I'm caught off guard and frantically start dragging my feet through the woodchips, which has the desired effect and slows me down. As I slow down, he steps forward bit by bit, getting closer to me. My foot nearly hits him a couple times, but he doesn't move. When I finally stop, he halts, and then walks past me.
As you can imagine, I am very shaken by this and decide to call it a day. As I walk back, I (with my overactive imagination) can't stop thinking about the little boy. He had purposefully stepped in my path, and I couldn't decide if he was playing a game of chicken (not likely - he didn't even move when I almost hit him) or if he was curious to see if I wouldn't hit him or if he wanted me to hit him or what. I mean, looking at it from this perspective (sitting safely in my living room), it seems like a pretty typical little-boy thing to do, but it still bothers me. And as usual, I'm overthinking it. But I think there's some importance in this, so I'll just keep rolling. I apologize in advance.
Anyways, that happened. And now I am overcome with feelings of potential guilt and (most of all) incredulity. I mean, what if I had hit him? Where were his parents? Did it matter if his parents were there or not? Would someone have yelled at me if I had hit him? Would he have deserved it (which sounds cold and awful, I know), or would I be the one at fault? Was I being stupid for even being on the swings in the first place, while there were little kids around?
Probably. Who knows? I imagine there are many opinions on the subject, which I would love to hear. I am not a parent and have had limited contact with little kids (apart from Russia), and so it would be nice to get a more informed opinion.
At any rate, this got me thinking about other things - like, say, what happens in car accidents. I was nearly hit by a car a few weeks ago, and the experience (of course) really shook me. Much like this recent experience with the swing, it made me re-think what my place was in the world and how important or unimportant I was to other people, what my life/comfort was worth and how small and fragile my life really is. Although the swing experience wasn't quite as potentially fatal as nearly being hit by a car, it still made me think of those same things (albeit within a different sort of context).
The car that nearly hit me was driven by a guy my own age, maybe a few years older. The car was really nice, one of the nicest I've seen around Rexburg. And as anyone who has ever driven a car knows, it's usually the people with the nicest cars that are the most likely to show off their speed and generally act like idiots on the road. I had encountered this in my own driving experiences, but it hadn't really affected me all that much - primarily because I was driving a car and thus felt protected and isolated from my surroundings. In this most recent case, however, I wasn't in a car. I was on my own, out in the open. While I might have stood a chance had I been in a car, I would probably have died in this particular case.
Thinking about this, I think the guy driving the nice car had the same level of understanding and awareness as that little boy did - he could see me clearly in front of him, could see how close I was going to be, probably knew his chances of hitting me, and yet he drove on anyway. Why? Well, he wanted to get somewhere quickly, and he was confident enough in his abilities and in his car that the potential result didn't seem all that likely or important. I don't think he was trying to hit me - the experience would probably have been just as horrible for him, if not more so, since it would have been his fault. For his sake, as well as my own, I am glad that he didn't hit me.
The point is, on some level, he didn't understand what he was doing. And once you think about that, it's kind of terrifying.
I mean, when do we achieve that awareness? I know that it took me a long time to really understand how to relate to people and understand how I affected them, even on the smallest level. And for others, it takes hitting someone with a car or getting hurt themselves to achieve this understanding. I don't know why this is, and I'm not accusing anyone of being neglectful of this part of themselves or, heck, neglecting to teach this to their own kids. It's just fascinating, in a way, what it might take for us to become aware of other people and how our actions might affect them. Empathy is something that we aren't exactly born with (I mean, as cute as they are, babies aren't really capable of comprehending other peoples' needs and feelings), as I have stated, but when should we develop it? Preferably before we hurt anyone else, right?
Then again, how do you teach empathy?
In my own experience, it's not a matter of teaching but of wanting - and deciding - to learn. I didn't really start learning about empathy until I was about twelve or thirteen, having just undergone a few horrible experiences in my life and coming out of an emotional phase where I was moody and short-tempered all the time. By that point, I was well aware of how miserable I could make other people if I chose, and I found that doing that just made me miserable, too. This was a conscious decision on my part, and it took me a while to really live up to it. Heck, I'm still struggling to live up to it.
But that's the thing - you can do your best to teach someone to be aware of the people around them and consider their needs, but in the end it's up to them to decide whether or not they're going to listen. That little boy I nearly hit is young enough that it's understandable for him not to have learned about that yet, but that young man in the fancy car was around my own age and had control of a heavy motorized hunk of metal. If he hasn't learned it already, he'd better learn it soon. Otherwise, the consequences could be tragic.