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  • Patricia Wilcox

94. My Earliest Lesson in Empathy.

Updated: Apr 22

The day when the fat lady got on our train turned out to be a pivotal moment in my earliest spiritual development. At the time my grandfather was very ill, requiring my mother to spend most mid-week mornings working busily until our little family was ready to proceed to the railway station and thence to my grandparent's home several miles away. I had made this trip many times, and it was for the most part a boringly predictable exercise. Therefore it was a moment of high drama for me when our train pulled in to a station and I saw an extremely obese woman struggling to ascend the narrow steps leading from platform to carriage. “Look, Mum! Look! Look at the fat lady” I shrieked. I had to make my voice even louder and more insistent because my mother had buried her head in her train timetable and appeared not to hear me. Which was strange, because I clearly had the attention of everyone else. Eventually, it was the fierceness in her eyes, more than the shushhhhh she hissed at me through clenched teeth, that froze me into silence. It was only after we arrived and shuffled – as invisibly as possible – out of the carriage, that my mother expressed her shame and disappointment. Continuing in silence up the hill towards my grandparent’s home, I plodded on in misery, trying to understand why that very ‘truth’ that our Minister extolled as a great virtue on Sunday could act like an explosive device in the mouth of a child, just a day later. Although I was only three years old, I was already being called to reflect on what constituted this 'truth', and when it was appropriate to share it. In my mind, it was just like my well-loved nursery story - the 'Emperor’s New Clothes' - when a young boy in the crowd was the only one to say out loud what everyone else knew to be true. All the villagers were in fear of the Emperor and his vanities, and felt obliged to pretend to see what they were being pressured to see by his retinue; only a small child was free of this fear, and willing to speak the truth. When the boy in the story spoke up, he had received great acclaim, so it was more than a little confusing to find myself confronted with my apparent equivalent of that story, yet wondering why I, too, was not being applauded. Surely no honest person in that carriage could deny that our new passenger had indeed been enthrallingly fat. Later my mother tried to explain to me why, although I had spoken the truth, neither the fat lady nor our travelling companions needed to have their attention drawn to that truth, in that way, at that moment. She talked about empathy and how I needed to imagine the possible effect of my words upon others. And so it was that I first began to appreciate the depths of a verse I would later discover in the Writings of Baha’u’llah, that: "Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it." - Bahá’u’lláh / LXXXIX; Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah. This became known as the Triple Filter test; before we speak we should consider an idea's appropriateness by 3 factors; Is it; 1. able to be expressed? 2. timely to the situation? 3. suited to a person's capacity? So valuable was this verse that I taught it to my children and as adults they still apply it to situations today. The Fat Lady encounter was what my future Teacher Training described as a 'teachable moment'; an experience, whether planned or spontaneous, that is presented to a child in a compelling way. For a Baha'i the ideal Teachable Moment also needs to meet the requirements of that Triple Filter Test. I think we tend to underestimate the impression that we as adults have upon the minds of children. The purpose of what appear to be insignificant children's stories like 'The Emperor's New Clothes' are common to every culture and religion. Some have factual origins, others are based on tradition or else completely fictional. Whether ancient or modern, these serve a profound and relevant purpose in explaining the world and man's experience. The Words of the Baha'i Sacred Teachings have been given to humanity for the unique needs of this day. It is the challenge of parents and teachers to impart these teachings in a manner that is understood by the one who hears them, and is both timely and suited to individual capacity. This is a task of special significance to mothers who are, as Abdu'l-Baha states, the first educators of the child; "Let the mothers consider that whatever concerneth the education of children is of the first importance. Let them put forth every effort in this regard, for when the bough is green and tender it will grow in whatever way ye train it. Therefore is it incumbent upon the mothers to rear their little ones even as a gardener tendeth his young plants. Let them strive by day and by night to establish within their children faith and certitude, the fear of God, the love of the Beloved of the worlds, and all good qualities and traits. Whensoever a mother seeth that her child hath done well, let her praise and applaud him and cheer his heart; and if the slightest undesirable trait should manifest itself, let her counsel the child and punish him, and use means based on reason, even a slight verbal chastisement should this be necessary".---Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá 94 This education continues from the family through to study circles with the community, in a cradle-to-grave education system. The Baha'i Writings emphasise the implications of this spiritual education, not just for the individual child but ultimately our wider society, because it is key to the future advancement all humanity.