If We aren’t Promoting Empathy, What are We Promoting?
Three weeks ago, there was an article published locally, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Someone To Tell It To’s headquarters are located in the United States. It was about a nearby school district where some parents are suing the district over a character-building curriculum for the students, a curriculum promoting empathy and other civility attributes. One of the parents is quoted as declaring in support of the lawsuit:
Again, not everyone deserves respect, empathy, honesty, kindness etc. from my children.
The following week, a well-respected and long-time local journalist wrote a column entitled, What sort of parent or religion wants kids to be unkind?, which grabbed our attention immediately.
We rarely venture into what could be termed turbulent “political” waters, by some. However, it seems irresponsible for us not to comment on the statement above about not everyone deserving “respect, empathy, honesty, and kindness, etc.” from the children of those parents.
If you’ve followed Someone To Tell It To’s mission at any point in time the past 11 years since its inception, you would know that empathy, in particular, is something we deeply try to model, teach, and promote. You could say empathy, through the art and the science of compassionate listening, is kind of our jam.
We’ve been in the midst of taking our Listening Training courses and making them more accessible to local, statewide, national, and international communities, striving to help the world to listen. The objective is to make the world a more kind, compassionate, and yes, empathetic place. In our state of Pennsylvania, Someone To Tell It To has received accreditation to train teachers in compassionate listening.
Through our training, we explicitly express that empathy is what fuels connection, something all humans need and crave. Empathy does not try to fix Someone or judge Someone or necessarily feel sorry for Someone. Empathy is simply understanding that Someone is feeling something deeply, often something confusing, painful, or regretful. Empathy enables us to show others that we care about their circumstances – their pain, their sadness, their challenges, their struggles, their heartache.
To listen empathetically – and compassionately – engages not only our mind, but also our heart to attempt to know in a more intentional way, the meaning of Someone’s words and the intensity of feelings that Someone is experiencing. It is about validating that others’ feelings are real and true for them. It is about helping people know that they need not go through their challenges alone, that others care and respect the fact that all of us are carrying burdens and fears, insecurities and losses, pain and heartache throughout our lives. Empathy doesn’t excuse hateful, hurtful, horrible behavior. But it tries to gain some understanding of why it exists and what causes it to be so. Empathy recognizes that we all have imperfections and are in need of others to support us as we come face-to-face with those imperfections every single day. Empathy recognizes that we are all in this life, this space, together. And empathy seeks to find a way for us all to co-exist in respect, honesty, kindness, forgiveness, and love in the best ways we can. Every significant faith community and community of people who subscribe to no faith, but to a belief in human dignity and worth, share these common values.
Empathy is not overtly political. It is simply an outcome of a belief in basic human dignity and worth. Why wouldn’t we teach all children about this dignity and worth? And why wouldn’t we model that dignity and worth to the best of our ability in everything we do?
In the past 11 years, through tens of thousands of listening interactions with people from around the world (most recently in war-ravaged Ukraine), we have listened to the heart-wrenching stories of those who live with challenges that can be overwhelming to hear.
You don’t have to just take our word for it.
Take the word of those who live in war-torn regions, or those dealing aftershocks of earthquakes and other natural disasters, or with life-threatening cancer diagnoses and other illnesses, or who are affected by gun violence and mass shootings, or who live as refugees, or who contemplate suicide, or who are in the midst of the ebbs and flows of a grief journey, or going through countless other painful aspects of the human condition. Empathy is what they need. It’s what they crave. Empathy, and especially empathy exhibited through compassionate listening, leads to transformation, healing, restoration, wholeness. And once you hear and absorb Someone’s story, empathy is the catalyst for a respectful, kind, and redemptive response.
As author, professor of pastoral counseling David Ausberger has said:
Listening compassionately … “is so close to being loved that most people can’t tell the difference.”
Children need empathy. Children need to learn about empathy. Children need to give empathy. Their parents and all adults need empathy. Their parents and all adults need to learn about empathy. Their parents and all adults need to give empathy.
Empathy, respect, honesty, and kindness, along with compassion and caring, and listening to learn one another’s stories, may not solve every problem in the world and take every heartache easily away. But those gifts will make this world a better and better place.
If only we begin to teach the children well. And maybe our adult selves in the process.
Several years ago PennLive recognized the value of empathy, expressed through compassionate listening, when this article was written on Easter Sunday morning. The article served as a reminder that miracles can and do happen when we listen with compassion and empathy, something every human desperately needs and seeks.
Photo by note thanun on Unsplash