This wasn’t your typical college course: Some students were graduating seniors enrolled in their last undergraduate class, while others were grandparents who hadn’t stepped foot on a college campus in more than 50 years. All were there to learn about one thing: Compassion.
Over four weeks, the Compassion May Term class, which was open to University of Redlands students and adults in the community, explored what it means to live a life of compassion through biographical models such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama; the compassion teachings of the world’s religions; and first-person application of compassion practices. For the undergraduate students, there was also a community service component, and many served at Totally Kids, a local hospital for medically-dependent children.
“We are learning from each other's lives,” Prof. Fran Grace said. “As Hugh Huntley, 85, said on the first day of class, ‘Each person here is a book longing to be read.’ Genuine sharing without the barrier of fear offers the greatest path to awaken compassion.”
Grace has taught the Compassion course for 10 years, and in 2014, opened it up to “lifelong learners,” ranging in age from 30 to 75.
“In many cultures around the world, young people have a high respect for the wisdom of community elders, and they sit at the feet of the wisdom holders,” she said. “In American society, unfortunately, we suffer from a growing divide between the generations and this elder wisdom goes untapped. Liberal arts education, in its classical sense, was about growing in wisdom — not mere knowledge.”
The students last year enjoyed the intergenerational dynamic, telling Grace they thought it was how learning should be. They listened to the older adults in the classroom share their experiences, with some talking about growing up in India with parents who worked for Gandhi’s revolution and another discussing what it was like to be a single mother with two children.
“This kind of education isn’t about facts, dates in history or theory,” Grace said. “It is about wisdom. Inter-generational learning cultivates the intelligence of the heart.”
This year, Grace said she was “spurred by the creative vision” of Nancy Kuncl, wife of President Ralph Kuncl, and Marion Wiens and Carol Townsend, residents of the senior neighborhood Plymouth Village in Redlands, to extend a special invitation to other lifelong learners.
“Marion and Carol see it as a paving the way for, hopefully, a long-term collaboration between the University of Redlands and Plymouth Village, home to many University alumnae eager for lifelong learning opportunities,” Grace said.
Compassion is about the easing of suffering, and in the course, the class studied the suffering inherent to life, and their discussions revealed that people of all ages have suffered loss, despair, rejection, and pain.
“The older participants are between 45 and 85 years old, and they shared keen insights into the process and meaning of life,” Grace said. “The older adults have been through many difficulties in life: abusive relationships, loss of loved ones, caring for a beloved family member with Alzheimer's, chronic health conditions, major career changes, and profound disappointments in life. Out of the crucible of these trials, they share the nobility of the human spirit to endure, to grow, to find hope in the midst of what might appear hopeless. They testify to the power of giving back to your community and to healing potential of the creative arts. They have shared their stories and poetry with the college students. The atmosphere has become quite intimate.”
By opening themselves up, the lifelong learners set the tone for the class.
“The college students have felt the safe haven provided by the presence of the older ones, who listen and love,” Grace said. “They share the wounds of their generation: suicide, drug overdoses, depression, neglect or pressure from overachieving parents. Compassion is generated when suffering is named and acknowledged as an inescapable part of the human experience.”
Some participants said when the class started they didn’t know what to expect, but they quickly realized they were part of a unique learning opportunity.
“I used to feel awkward around younger people and thought, ‘Oh, they won’t want to talk to an old lady,’” Townsend said. “But I have a different attitude now, and fondness for all of the students.”
Wiens missed the first week of the course due to illness, and was thrilled with what she witnessed when she came to her first class.
“I was astonished by the openness of the students,” she said. “It was breathtaking to me, how open they were to each other. ”
Simon Titone ’15 found that he was able to form relationships with the lifelong learners in a way he wasn’t used to.
“It was nice to be able to relate to people on a different level,” he said. “It was different from how I have been relating to people for the past four years.”
Several of the college students said that listening to the lifelong learners share their experiences was comforting.
“It’s reassuring to know how the journey of compassion will never end, it can continue until the day you die,” Maria Carnevale ’17 said.
As the students learned more about each other and also such figures as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela, they started to see that compassion is everywhere.
“Compassionate acts happen every day,” Melissa Hernandez ’15 said. “When you bring self-awareness to actions it makes a world of difference.”
“This class made me feel less helpless in the world,” Carnevale said.
“It’s nice being able to put into practice compassion,” Titone said. “All of those negative things in life can really hurt you, and you have to let go of them. Being caring and kind to people, those are good skills to go out into the world with.”
One day, there was a new twist: 10 high school students from the Grove School in Redlands joined the class to discuss the topic of forgiveness. Grace used a case study that involved all generations: The 21-year-old son, a college student, of a Muslim Sufi man was murdered by a 14-year-old grandson of a Baptist man over a pizza.
“It was a senseless loss of human life,” Grace said. “How is forgiveness possible? The Sufi father of the dead son and Baptist grandfather of the killer forged a partnership to work together to end violence among youth. This is the wisdom of the older generations bringing hope and a vision to the younger. This was a powerful class session. We dialogued across our differences to see that we all have things to forgive — maybe it's another person, maybe it's a life circumstance, maybe it's our own past mistakes.”
At the end of the class, after sharing their personal stories, poetry, thoughts, hopes, and dreams, each student walked away with a greater understanding of compassion — and themselves.
“I wrote in my journal, ‘Compassion is a lifetime work, and I’m glad I’m only 75,’” Townsend said.
Written by: Catherine Garcia '06