Collin was just seven months old when the 2010 Winter Games were held in Vancouver. Now, at the age of three, I feel obligated to explain the Olympics to him. So, I let him take a long nap on Friday so he could stay up to watch the opening ceremonies with me. (Relax – it’s only every two years!)
I’ve only ever played on one sports team in my life (a disastrous tale for another time) and visited two countries other than my own (though I hope to change that). But, you don’t need to be an athlete or a globetrotter to appreciate what the Olympics symbolize.
In explaining the meaning of these international games to Collin, I discovered some truth for myself.
Truth 4: The Olympics are a lesson in human emotion.
I’ve been discussing how I’ve shared the Olympics with Collin, but Frank seems to have disappeared in true second son form. Not true. He’s been right there watching the games with us – especially the track events that have been broadcast during his late-night feedings. (Thank you NBC – I was getting tired of infomercials!)
I know what you’re thinking – what could a baby possible understand about the Olympics? Certainly not an appreciation for cultural diversity, hometown pride, an understanding of the size of our world, or what it means to be a team player – the values I hope to have begun shaping for his three-year-old brother. The message, like Frank’s world, is simple: people have feelings.
Reducing all of the complexities of human emotions to an infant’s level is, of course, impossible. It’s hard enough teaching the difference between sympathy and empathy to my ninth grade English students. So, how is Frank learning about the inner workings of the human soul? Faces.
As soon as their eyes begin to focus, newborn brains are wired to gaze at human faces. In addition to being a way to learn about the species they’ve just joined, looking at people is the first step infants take towards communication. Most importantly, facial recognition and response enables babies to bond with with their mothers and other caregivers.
A child’s smile causes his or her mother to feel loved, releasing “feel-good” chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine in her brain. Mom is encouraged to continue to nurture her child so that that emotional high can return.
Frank first smiled at me in a deliberate, controlled manner around six weeks. Since then, I have spent countless hours making ridiculous sounds and faces to elicit those warm feelings over and over again. This psychosomatic reaction is especially strong for me when Collin does something to make Frank smile.
By three months, babies can express a near-full range of emotions using their foreheads, eyebrows, eyes, cheeks, mouth and chin. They’ve also begun to respond to our facial expressions and even those of complete strangers.
Athletes get the same rush of sublime joy when they win their events – along with a hefty dose of adrenaline. But their faces reflect a spectrum of their innermost feelings along their journeys.
Frank and I have been paying special attention to the track runners. The determination and intensity on their faces as they run is other-worldly. At times, their faces seem comical, until you remember the stakes, especially considering that so many of the runners are representing countries of great social, political, and economical strife.
The obstacles they’ve overcome to be a part of London 2012 coupled with super-human speed make easy favorites of Usain Bolt, David Rudisha, and Oscar Pitoras, runners from Jamaica, Kenya, and South Africa. Their visibly emotional reactions after crossing the finish line – be it first, last, or in between, can elicit emotional responses from practically every viewer, even an almost-three-month-old American boy named Frank.
Bolt’s post-victory antics are particularly animated. Frank cooed wildly as he watched Bolt strike his signature “lightning pose.”
Rudisha’s smile upon receiving his gold medal after setting the world record in the 800m dash was a humble and subdued expression of joy. It’s pure warmth – much like Frank’s sweet smile.
Pitoras’ Olympic fate was less than fortunate. When he failed to qualify, he hid his eyes behind dark sunglasses, but the tension in his jaw and lips revealed a spirit dampened by defeat.
My favorite Olympic running story, however, is that of Meseret Defar, of Ethiopia, who carried an image of Mary with her over the finish line. She is the first woman to win two gold medals in the 5000-meter event. This is what real gratitude looks like. This is awe.
Credit: CNA/Alexander Hassens/Getty Images
Faces transcend many barriers. No matter where we come from, what language we speak or whether or not we can comprehend the complexities of the game of life, we can always try to understand someone else just by looking into their eyes. In watching the Olympics, Frank is learning that the human face takes on many colors and shapes, but emotions.
Of course, not everyone can “read faces.” Some people are born without or lose one or more of their senses. Sight, in particular, is key to this form of interpersonal insight. Without the ability to see faces, the blind use other methods recognize the emotional needs of others.
But what about the cases where the ability to empathize doesn’t exist? Autism is a spectrum disorder – meaning there is a range of impact -defined predominately by the inability to recognize and respond to social cues and norms. Autism and other mental and emotional conditions prohibit some people from empathizing.
These disorders are still a mystery for most of the medical community, but with continuing research, more effective treatments may be developed. Until then, specialists and families rely on a variety of cognitive and behavioral strategies to help people who struggle with empathy to begin to understand those around them.
If God has blessed you with the gift of sight and an ability (not to be confused with desire) to feel for others, then He has called you to act with compassion. God designed our bodies, so he must have developed our faces to reveal what’s on our minds. This collaboration allows us to express the state of our spirits, to interpret the emotional barometer of others, and to act accordingly. The next time you find yourself reacting to the expression on someone else’s face, think of the words of St. Francis, and act accordingly. I’ll teach my boys the same.
Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.