I often think about what I hope my children will remember me by, what virtues I want to encourage and what can be my legacy for them. Some of the powerful contenders are education, mindfulness, grit and hard work. But my heart is stuck on something else.
As a child, my father narrated many stories to me, mostly from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavatam Kathas, and more. One that stayed with me was about contribution, not of a mighty god or goddess, but that of a tiny squirrel.
The construction of the mammoth bridge by the vanar sena was in full swing as Rama and his army yearned to bring Sita back from Lanka. A tiny squirrel watched intently and brought tiny pebbles from the shore in its small mouth to lend a hand.
Observers mocked at it, asking it to look around you at the legends that are creating this floating bridge. How do you think these tiny stones will help?
The squirrel continued to work as fast as it could. A monkey king, irritated as the squirrel came in his way, picked it up and hurled it across the shore.
Rama caught it. The squirrel apologised for its meagre contribution. Rama explained that without the tiny stones and pebbles filling in the gaps and binding the large stones, the bridge would not be any good.
The tale has stayed with me, every step of my life. It taught me that no contribution is big or small, right or wrong and is never insignificant.
This is what I wish for my children to learn: to compassionately contribute what they can, when they can and how they can, without worrying about judgement or evaluation.
Our world is an interdependent complex web of communities, an interwoven ecosystem, one aiding the other. Every tiny unit has a role to play and the ability to assist the vitality of this large whole. We are not fragmented, stand-alone islands, but are the parts and the whole.
Recently my son, in throes of emotions, exclaimed that we would surely run out of money if I didn’t “take it easy with my generosity”, as I ordered something for one of my staff members who is to leave soon for Christmas. Agitated, he said, “There are so many people in this world who need help, how are we going to make a difference?” And that would I stop only after our family became poor after giving away all our money.
I introduced him to the squirrel in my heart.
Shifting gaze away from me, indicating processing and registering actively, the story seemed to settle him. I knew it had hit a nerve.
We often feel talking to children about adding value or contributing towards the community may be premature, that we have plenty of time to teach and demonstrate. Acquainting them with the hard truths may disturb or confuse them, given that the stories can be grim, and methods or means of contribution so diverse.
In my opinion this delay has cost us much. The crux of the teaching lies in sowing the seed early. Planting an intention of compassion, to contribute to another life, another entity, to help and add value in however small ways we can.
This needs to be done not out of sympathy or pity, but with respect and compassion for those who haven’t received the way some have, and with comprehension of the fact that we all support each other’s existence.
We don’t have to feel the pressure to see acts of kindness early on. Children take time to comprehend such complex emotions and decipher implications of present actions on the distant future. I have to often remind myself to be patient and persistent. My hope is to introduce my children to their own ability to help and empower them with a resolve that they can change the world, starting with one person at a time. I hope for this to be my legacy for my children. As parents, our perceptions and emotions often keep us from introducing children, in time, to virtues that can change the world, while we secretly hope for them to do exactly that.
Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.