I grew up in a household where we were encouraged to keep ourselves to ourselves. If someone asked for help and we could give it, then we would - except if that help was deemed "too much work" or if that person was considered a "crazy person". We would never offer help though - not without being asked because it was the job of the "helpless" to ask for support.
"Crazy people" were drunks, "druggies" and older, senile people. We never helped them unless we were cornered into it - and even then, the help that was given was only ever a means of escape. These days of course, I recognize that these are terrible and callous attitudes to have but suppose I hadn't been taught that. Would I be the same today?
I think it goes without saying that I grew up not understanding much about "poor people", misfortune and life on the edge. Since I couldn't understand such people, there was no way I could "put myself into their shoes" and as such, I lacked not only the proper responses but empathy itself.
It wasn't until I was much older, in fact, not until I'd left school and was out with my then girlfriend (now my wife of 16 years), that I started to make my first steps in the world of empathy. We were out shopping and we saw a young mother with a pram trying to get down some stairs. There were other people around her but they were ignoring her, just as I'd been taught to do.
My girlfriend told me to go and help but I said we couldn't until the lady asked for help. We got into a bit of an argument which ended abruptly when my girlfriend went over and volunteered my help to lift the pram down. We helped her and the lady was grateful but I still couldn't understand why she hadn't followed "the rules" and asked for help first.
I remember resenting the fact that I'd be been volunteered like that but it was the first of many such lessons. They were lessons that I needed to have and I value my wife's input on these greatly. One of the big differences between our families was that hers was "conditioned to help" from a very early age while mine was not. I can't blame my parents entirely for that either because those values certainly passed to my mother from her own mother - and although she was a wonderful person to me, there are some terrible stories of injustice there too.
Today, the experience and parenthood itself has changed me. Today I'll automatically help someone with a pram down stairs without being asked. I've learned. At least, I've learned about "that" scenario but there are many others which are still new to me and these don't get automatic reactions when they should. From my point of view, I just have to keep an open mind and listen to my wife and mentor.
I'll discuss this in more detail in part 2.