Years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.

But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.- Dr. Ira Byock, The Best Care Possible.

Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.

Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.

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The true meaning of empathy

We are at our best when we serve others.

Serving or helping others is a result of motivational empathy, commonly known as compassion. A more advanced form of this is called cognitive empathy.

This is what gives us the ability to think from another person’s perspective – to see what they see, to feel what they feel and understand why they do what they do. 

A recent experience gave me a chance to understand the true meaning of empathy. Also, to understand why empathy vs. sympathy is so much talked about. 

After the first round of coronavirus seemed to have ended, the lockdown rules were relaxed and people began to venture out. Like other kids, I too was eager to meet and play with my neighborhood children. 

There is an apartment right next to my house where some of my friends live. The watchman of this apartment has 2 kids who are almost as old as us.

One evening, I went to the basement of this apartment to play with my friends. My friends seemed to be busy as none of them turned up.

As I roamed around waiting for them, I happened to peep into the watchman’s house. His son, aged around 10 years had his face sunk into a mobile phone and appeared to be playing some sort of a loud, lousy video game. He also looked untidy and smelled so bad that it appeared like he hadn’t showered in many days.

A few minutes later, my friends joined me and we started playing kho-kho. The watchman’s son joined us. 

As our game progressed, we realized that he couldn’t fully comprehend our language and thus didn’t follow most of the rules. He was also a little rude and unruly.  Nobody seemed comfortable with his presence.

He soon left the game and went home.

We played for a while and I came home. I ran to my mom and explained to her my first experience of playing with my friends after a gap of many months. I told her about the watchman’s son; about his impolite tone, about how bad he smelled and his addiction to video games.

I was careful not to feel icky about his clothes or his hair as I knew his family was quite poor and couldn’t afford fancy stuff like the rest of us. I was sympathetic to this condition but did not understand it fully- yet. 

I was bothered solely about those things which were in his control but he still didn’t seem to want to imbibe those in his daily life. I wanted him to know what it was and take control of his life immediately. 

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He could certainly bathe daily instead of stinking. He could definitely talk to us and behave more nicely. He didn’t have to be addicted to his father’s mobile phone. I was being fair in judging him – or so I thought.

But as I spoke to my mom in detail about it, I realized how much more unprivileged he was than I thought. In the absence of school, he has no way to engage himself. No books, toys, board games, or any of the other playthings we enjoy.

His parents are not as educated as my parents to realize the harmful effects of mobile addiction and keep him away from it. He has no kids to play with or no role model to mimic.

His language seemed rude because that’s how some dialects are spoken.

I truly understood his plight and thus changed my views on him. I realized I had judged him wrongly.  This pandemic has terribly affected all of us but it has particularly affected the underprivileged a lot more. 

There is no better time than now to show the kindness of every form to our fellow beings. I went back to play the next day and we tried to play with the watchman’s son again. 

Nothing much had changed from his side but the way we viewed him certainly had. This time, I was equipped with empathy. 

I hope my writing about my experience reaches a lot of children and helps them understand the true meaning of empathy – just like how it did for me! 🙂 

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels