Empathy: Embracing Our Common Humanity

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Each year for the past few years, as a community, we have had an emphasis on a particular word that we have stressed throughout the year in many and  varied ways. The word is important because of the idea and meaning behind it and is intended to help us be intentional about how we think and act.

This year, our word is: Empathy

Many of you have read or will read To Kill A Mockingbird the novel that deals with coming of age, and racial injustice in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s; during the course of the novel, Scout the narrator, learns many important lessons about life and humanity, some from her own experience of the events that take place  throughout the novel, and some from the wisdom and advice of her father, Atticus, a lawyer in the town. Early on in the book, after her difficult first morning of school and disagreements with her teacher, Scout does not want to return to school, and Atticus tells her:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it “

This theme of walking around in some one else’s skin to help you really understand his or her point of view continues throughout the novel, and underscores many of the relationships and events. So what does walking in someone else’s skin help you to do? It is essential for understanding another person and his or her perspective, in other words, it helps you to develop empathy.

A book I came across this summer is called Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered co-written by a science journalist and a child psychiatrist. The book argues that the human brain is hardwired for empathy, and that we are built to connect to others, but we’re not born that way. Our amazing ability to sync our minds with others actually takes years of practice.

From the beginning, learning to recognize an emotion in another person involves trying to feel some of that emotion yourself, for example, we don’t just infer that smiles indicate happiness because we notice a correlation between good fortune and grins. We understand smiles through our urge to smile back.

Empathy is at the root of knowledge of other minds, and according to the co-authors, those who are unable to see the world from the perspective of another person are “cognitively crippled.”

Empathy opens when students of all ages, are in places where they feel safe, accepted, and heard. And warm relationships are the incubator of caring—it’s why parents who have warm, close relationships with their children are more likely to raise empathetic kids. It’s also why classrooms and schools with positive climates have less bullying, and students who feel less marginalized can be empathetic with their peers. In essence, the very nature of being empathetic, involves looking past one’s own perspective in any given situation and understanding as best as possible the needs and experiences of another person.

When we look at ourselves, each of us has vulnerabilities and weaknesses as well as strengths. Some students will shine in the classroom, others on the athletic fields, others in performances or in community service.  The important thing is that we help each other where help is needed and we learn from each other rather than making each other feel inadequate or embarrassed. We develop empathy to help us understand what others are feeling and experiencing.

Back in the dawn of history, when I was in high school in England, a new girl joined our class in what was the  equivalent to 10th grade. Her name was Tiu and she was from Estonia . She was different from most of us in that her native tongue was German and her English, at least  to begin with, was fractured and very accented. She had no knowledge of or real interest in the music we listened to; even though we all wore a uniform, somehow Tiu managed to look different, perhaps it was because her uniform was home made rather than bought in a shop , or perhaps because her hair style was, in our eyes, rather old-fashioned. In other words Tiu didn’t really “fit in” to the cultural norms of my all -girls school. Tiu’s life for the first few weeks of school must have been miserable, and she must have been very unhappy. It wasn’t until my history teacher pulled a me and few friends to one side and asked us to make an effort to include Tiu in our affairs that I made an effort to get to know and understand Tiu. I had my first real conversation with Tiu and learned of her life in Estonia, and why she and her family had left and come to Cambridge- their living and political situation was untenable, and they had come to make a new life for themselves in a university town. Her father was a scientist and  had gotten a position  lecturing in the physics department, and they were starting anew. I was intrigued and fascinated by Tiu’s story, and from that conversation, I began to learn the meaning of empathy.  I tried to imagine myself and my family moving to a new country, a new job, a new school, trying to make new friends,  and all the time feeling and being made to feel different. I walked in Tiu’s skin for a few days, and we became good friends.

Be kind to each other, and let us be a community that is inclusive  rather than exclusive. As a healthy community we support everyone and celebrate and reach out to people whose interests may be different from our own. At a time when our society emphasizes what separates people and groups from one another, we seek out what unifies people and how we can indeed walk in each other’s shoes. Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests we should think of American culture as a “conversation among different voices,” and I suggest that we should listen carefully to the different voices within and outside of this community in an effort to learn and achieve greater understanding, and we will surely find some shared language and ideas which will reflect our common humanity, and in so doing, begin to understand the true nature of empathy.

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