One thing that stood out strongly from the 18 men and women I interviewed for my book, The New Frontier: Making a Difference in Later Life,(1) was that they were are all extremely caring people.
One of the factors constantly mentioned as fostering these caring attitudes and values was the example of parents and relatives. Our New Frontier role models themselves had role models. Their parents cared about the problems of society, but more importantly they cared about their own children. As the saying goes: ‘Loving parents have caring children.’
That the Sternberg Award winners in this book have learned empathy – the ability to identify with and understand another person’s feelings and emotions – is obvious. They learned it through their role models, through having close relationships with parents and family and having friends they cared about; and through reading good fiction. In fiction we are invited to enter the hearts and minds of the characters in the story and to feel what they feel. I did not ask my interviewees about their reading habits, but I feel sure that, as youngsters, they were read to, that there were books in the house and regular visits to the library.
In many instances, they learned caring attitudes and habits by doing – by having to look after pets, younger siblings, helping to care for elderly relatives. And they learned by being members of clubs and groups that involved them in caring, helping and giving activities. These were the kind of organisations that met the aim that their members could say: ‘I know what is going on; I care; and I am doing something about it.’
Professor Ervin Staub (2) suggests that the frustration of basic needs is central to the development of hostility and aggression and that their fulfilment is central to caring about other people’s welfare. By ‘basic needs’ he means not only physical needs like food, shelter and security, but also love, developing a positive identity and having effective control of our lives. With the development of a positive self-image and an ability to empathise with others come feelings of responsibility.
In several instances what has channelled already established caring attitudes in a particular direction or acted as a catalyst has been some kind of challenge. This may have been in the form of ill-health to be overcome, followed by a desire to help others in similar circumstances; or challenges faced in one of the caring professions which are then pursued well into retirement; or an encounter with a situation that cannot be ignored. When the challenge came these people did not look the other way. Because of patterns laid down in their earlier lives, they were able to respond to a need with the necessary work ethic and with acquired professional expertise such as leadership, organisation, administration and fundraising skills, Compassion, passion and competence combined to produce actions that have made a difference to society – actions which claim victory over the human tendency to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and which extend the boundaries of ‘us’ to all of humanity.
- The New Frontier is due out later this year, published by ThunderPoint Publishing.
- Ervin Staub is Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Founding Director of its Ph.D. concentration in the Psychology of Peace and Violence. He is a past President of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence: Peace Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association.