“Before money, people didn’t barter but gave and received as goods ebbed and flowed. They thereby incurred the indebtedness that bound them together, and reciprocated slowly, incompletely, in the ongoing transaction that is a community. Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by completing the transactions that never needed to be completed in the older systems, but existed like a circulatory system in a body. Money makes us separate bodies, and maybe it teaches us that we should be separate.” – Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
The initial developmental stages of life occur quickly, without any reprieve from all of the change. From loud cries to the first words, the slow shift from crawling to walking, and up to the mad, strange rush of the teenage years when the world pushes as intensely from within as without, learning comes at every turn.
Young children may be innocent and honest – and naive about the constructs we’ve built into our civilized world – but they are also self-absorbed, and less aware of what it means for others to feel as they do. It isn’t until around the age of two that they begin to understand what it is to engage in empathetic acts, and later, when they feel what it is to have empathy for others – whether it’s their sibling who might be sick or a friend who has lost a favourite toy.
There are many different bridges to developing empathy, some that occur in the moment and others that stretch out for longer periods of time. In my first year of college, I volunteered to visit patients at a local hospital in the gentle care ward. Initially, I didn’t have a thorough grasp of what I was getting into, but within a few weeks, I began to see what the people I was visiting were dealing with each day. As a young person with a sense of the infiniteness of life, I recoiled against it.
For two hours a week, I would sit behind a keypad-locked door that was there to keep the residents within the ward, and I too would feel like I was trapped. In illness, there can sometimes be reprieves and improvements, but for the people I met who struggled with Alzheimer’s and dementia, there would only be better days and moments; memories and many of the fundamental elements of reason were being lost. I remember seeing pictures on the wall that a man had painted, a man who – as I stood beside him – was unable to form a sentence; he who had had an artist’s gift, an inward eye that he’d once been able to articulate.