Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I Get It

A few years ago I strolled past a fourth-grade classroom where a word had been tacked up:

EMPATHY

with little kid essays hanging below.

I stopped cold because I hadn't learned the value of this word when I was nine. Oh no, I didn't learn the value of this word until I was well...well into adulthood and my therapist pointed out I was lacking in empathy.

"But my yoga handstand is improving..." I argued.

She delivered the steady gaze all psychotherapists must practice in therapy school.

In the lower-middle-class suburban home where I was raised, empathy was not on display. Instead, we lived with these behaviors:

CRITICISM

DEVALUATION

DISPARAGING

MOCKERY

Sympathy showed up in our household in chats about the circumstances of a neighboring family struggling more than we were. We felt sorry for those people. We grimaced at their lot. And we stayed distant as if touching would be contagious.

This is not empathy. It's not even good sympathy.

Empathy evokes compassion. Empathy is putting ourselves into someone else's shoes. Empathy is the kind ear of identification.

Maybe these words are a road map to empathic behavior:

OBSERVATION

FEELING

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Here's what that fourth-grade teacher knew:

We are never too young to reach beyond ourselves in empathy.

Here's what I know:

We are never too old to reach beyond ourselves in empathy.

Here's what we both know:

Empathy can and should be taught at every age.

CHILDREN'S WRITES: A Journal Entry
I feel lonely at home then I read a book then I feel more lonely.

The meaning of lonely is being somewere without people talking to you, not being with you, and most of the time when you are lonely you are sad.

—Kate, 4th grade

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