Empathy Lessons?

Heart Connection (by Alisa Looney)

“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” ~ Brené Brown

There have been so many cringe worthy events in the news this week. My discomfort level was so high that I woke up in the middle of the night one night with the idea that all of us in this country could use some empathy lessons.

Joe Biden tried to make a point about how he was able to work with segregationist law makers who thought very differently than he did. His comments were taken as an insult by Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. When asked if Biden was going to apologize, he said, “No. I’m not a racist. Cory Booker should apologize to me.” When he said that I thought, “It never hurts to apologize when someone misunderstands your intention.” We already have enough politicians, and people in power who don’t apologize for their policies or their actions.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve apologized to people who misunderstood what I said or did. I apologized even when I didn’t think I was in the wrong. Being open to the fact that maybe I was wrong was a fantastic way to open a dialogue so the other person and I could come to a new understanding.

I have to say that communication by words is extremely difficult. In a way, we each have our own vocabularies, with a particular word meaning one thing to me and something completely different for you. That’s why we often misunderstand each other. I think I’m saying one thing, while the people listening to the message each have their own interpretation of the words I’m using. Misunderstandings under those conditions are inevitable.

But that’s not the whole story. Body language and facial expressions are the largest communicators. Turn off the sound on any visual entertainment and see if you can understand what’s going on just by body language and facial expressions alone. My guess is you’d be able to understand the emotions of the interaction, if not what the people are saying to each other. To me, Joe Biden’s body language indicated belligerence, not cooperation.

That was the first event that got me thinking. Then there was the shooting in South Bend, Indiana. A white police officer shot a black man. Mayor Pete tried to have an open town hall meeting to see if they could come up with solutions for the problem. But that blew up into anger, pointing fingers and blaming the people in authority.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think there are far too many law enforcement related shootings happening in this country. And it is usually people of color who are the victims. That’s a horrendous situation that we need to fix. But as Mayor Pete admitted in the debate on Thursday evening, “…I couldn’t get it done,” meaning integrating his police department. He went on to say, “There’s a wall of mistrust, put up one racist act at a time.” That doesn’t mean he’s going to stop trying, it just means as it stands now, there is still an imbalance of black to white police officers in South Bend and it’s going to take lots of work to remedy that situation.

It was after the shooting in South Bend that the idea of empathy lessons came to me. Mayor Pete is right. We have so many walls of mistrust. The poor don’t trust the rich, people of color don’t trust whites, women don’t trust men, conservatives don’t trust progressives and visa versa; it just goes on and on. People in each of these groups have plenty of reason for their mistrust. And yet, there has to be a solution to keep this horrible situation from spiraling further out of control.

Maybe the solution is empathy lessons for all of us. We could make it a requirement in schools and colleges, as part of job training in all industries, and basic training for all government officials.

But who would lead the trainings? As I was thinking about that, the story broke that there were thousands of children being held in over crowded detention centers all over the southern border. These children don’t have access to hygiene products, proper bedding, and who knows maybe even food. The investigators discovered that the children were stuffed in facilities meant for fewer people. And they were pretty much left to fend for themselves. I have to ask, how does a baby, or a toddler fend for themselves?

We definitely need empathy lessons!

The cool thing is, empathy is something almost all of us come equipped with. And with practice we can develop it to a high skill. Things might seem really dark right now, but I say, lets get empathy experts on the job. They can be pulled from lots of different disciplines, counselors, ministers, human rights advocates, actors and directors, and people like Brené Brown who study shame, vulnerability and human behavior. I’d love to teach classes like that.

Just off the top of my head, here’s how I’d do it:

Make the participants watch selected movies and discuss the character’s motivations, and emotional states of mind. Which ones do the participants relate to? Not relate to? It’s a class I already teach at my local community college.

Bring in individuals to tell their stories. I once had training in sales. The motto was, “Stories sell.” That’s actually part of our DNA. When we observe acts of kindness, or hatred, it’s as if they are being done to us. Hearing someone’s honest retelling of their story does the same thing. We feel what they experienced and gain a new perspective.

Do some role playing casting people against type. Doing that takes them out of their comfort zones. I teach acting class too.

Read books and stories about people and places that are vastly different from our own and discuss them. I’m not as good at this one as I would like to be, but I have read books about people from different cultures that changed my perspective in profound ways. James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” And I agree with him.

These empathy lessons have to be on going events. It will take years for our culture to change from fear based to empathy based.

However, there is hope. A theory called The Hundredth Monkey Effect states that a group of animals, or people, can evolve if a certain percentage of the group learn a new skill, or way of being. It’s based on scientific research in Koshima, Japan beginning in 1950. It’s a fascinating story about how a young Macaca fuscata, monkey learned to wash sweet potatoes left in the dirt for the family group by the scientists. The scientists observed this monkey washing the dirt off her sweet potatoes in water. They then observed her teaching her mother to do the same thing. Over several years the practice was adopted by other monkeys until one day critical mass was reached. All the monkeys in that family group began washing their sweet potatoes. But it didn’t end there, monkeys on other islands began washing their sweet potatoes as well with no contact whatsoever with the family group being studied.

If monkeys can learn to wash sweet potatoes, then humans can learn empathy and love for each other. But if we are to survive as a species, we’d better get busy learning and teaching others how to develop our empathy skills.

What do you think?

Welcome to my new followers. Thank you all for reading, liking and commenting on my posts. I appreciate it.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2019

Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a little bit like Outlander in that it’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, novel. Except that Jenna’s life is shattered. When she finds old journals, she joins consciousness with her three-times great-grandmother, Morgan, rather than traveling physically. She is able to come back at intervals and apply what she’s learned to her own life situations.

The Space Between Time is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords and for Kindle at Amazon, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. If you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. Stay tuned for news when the audiobook version is published. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.

Published by lucindasagemidgorden

I grew up in the West, the descendant of people traveling by wagon train to a new life. Some of their determination and wanderlust became a part of me. I imagine them sitting around the campfire telling stories, which is why I became first a theatre artist, then a teacher and now a writer. They are all ways of telling stories.

3 thoughts on “Empathy Lessons?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: