Embrace Empathy

Posted: March 22, 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

New and emerging education research examines and supports the critical importance of empathy, both as theory and practice.

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Last week, the theme in my ENG 325 class was ‘Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Pluralism.’ I intentionally frame the conversations by addressing aspects of constructive choice (it is not ‘racism, sexism, and xenophobia’ week). Learning how to nurture positive responses to difference is much more empowering. Moreover, research shows that diversity feeds creativity, productivity, and stability.

We live in a diverse world, one in which our experiences are both strikingly similar and decidedly different than other members of our human family; a glimpse at what it means to be alive right now on this planet is offered in this fascinating video.

Another text that informs our dialogue is the (rather hippy-trippy, even for me) documentary called I Am, which delves deeper into the interconnection of all living things. Ultimately, concerning ourselves with the well-being of all life is an act that benefits everyone.

Connecting with each and every other person we encounter is an enormous challenge, but one that must be met. According to Jeremy Rifkin whose work The Empathic Civilization was presented as a lecture at the RSA, and beautifully animated here, suggests that if we don’t prioritize and promote empathy, “We’re simply not going to make it.”

Daily incidents of violence and destruction declare the importance of empathy. If we respect and value difference, if we feel connected to all of humanity, if we see in them a mirror of ourselves rather than a frightening, menacing other, it is much more difficult to label, harass, blame, or inflict pain.

Many years ago, a storyteller visited my school in Brecksville, Ohio. I recall sitting in a circle with my classmates in the little library inside Chippewa Elementary school. This event was greeted with the standard amount of elementary-school excitement—a real, live storyteller! We were going to experience something new and exciting, the way learning felt to all of us then (naturally I still love learning and libraries).

At the end of his performance, the storyteller shared a brief and ultimately prescient parable (the message came to resonate later in my life). The story offered a lesson in the destructive power of hatred. The exact words I have forgotten, yet the meaning remains incredibly vivid.

Here is what I remember:

Once upon a time, there was a powerful ruler. He craved complete power. As such, he was terribly jealous of his closest rival. The ruler wanted nothing more than to exceed his rival in every possible way.

Eager to realize his goal, the envious, suspicious leader asked for the assistance of a magical creature.

The wise creature told the ruler he would be granted one wish, with one stipulation. When the ruler’s wish came true, the benefit requested would be doubled and bestowed on the despised rival. If the ruler asked for a million pieces of gold, he would receive it, but his rival would receive twice that amount.

The ruler thought for a long time, confused and conflicted. Surely, what he wanted most was to surpass his rival. What gift that would be doubled could possibly achieve that end?

The ruler came to a decision and announced his desire.

“I have chosen my wish. I wish for you to strike me blind in one eye.”

The other children and I were stunned.

“How could anyone ever wish for something so terrible?” we naively asked.

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