From Empathy to Action
Back in September, as we moved closer to the Jewish high holidays, I sat down with my ten year old daughter and asked her if she had a personal goal or anything about herself that she wanted to work on in the year to come. After thinking about it for a while, she decided that she wanted to focus on trying to better understand how other people feel. In other words, she wanted to work on becoming a more empathetic person.
As the year has progressed, I have been checking in with her periodically to find out where she is in thinking about or working on that goal and quite frankly, I have been blown away by the stories she is sharing with me. Recently, she came home from school and shared this:
There is a boy in my daughter’s grade who frequently passes gas. My daughter has heard that the reason for this is medical- either the side effect of a medication he takes or the result of a chronic gastrointestinal disorder he suffers from. You can imagine, I’m sure, the reaction that this boy gets from his classmates- laughter, teasing, and straight out ostracizing. Nobody wants to sit next to this boy or play with him or be his friend. My daughter readily admits that she is not looking to be his best friend but she has been spending some time thinking about how he probably feels- lonely, sad, angry- and she has decided to make a concerted effort to show this boy kindness. If she sees him standing alone at recess she goes over to talk to him. If he needs a partner in P.E. she asks him if he wants to be her partner. The boy, my daughter says, seems appreciative and she feels good about her choices.
What she doesn’t quite understand is the response that she is now getting from some of her classmates. My daughter had hoped, that by role modeling kindness, and reaching out to this boy that some of her classmates might follow suit. Instead, she said, she feels like some of her classmates are getting angry at her. They are questioning her show of kindness and inclusion and asking her why she is even talking to him. This has given us the opportunity to dig deeper into my daughter’s quest to better understand how other people are feeling and we have begun to explore the question of why my daughter’s show of kindness to a child whom everyone else has turned their back on might cause her classmates to feel negatively towards her.
We have been talking about how fifth grade marks the beginning of those years where for many kids, what they want and value more than anything else is to “fit in.” As long as they are not the one being singled out or teased they are content. Additionally, if in order to fit in it means they feel like they need to ignore or tease the boy that everyone else is ignoring or teasing then that’s what they are going to do. And if EVERYONE else is doing it, then it must not be that bad, right?
My daughter has made the very brave choice to not go along with the crowd. Perhaps, in watching her, some of those other kids are now examining the choices they are making and may be feeling conflicted in their hearts about those choices. Maybe, I told my daughter, they don’t feel so good about treating this boy unkindly, but they are too scared about losing their own social status or worried about being singled out, to change how they are acting. They may try to pull you back in line, I explained, not because they think you are doing the wrong thing, but because they know that you are doing the right thing, and having to deal with that internal conflict is more than what they can deal with at 10 or 11 years old (heck, many adults can’t quite seem to figure this out). Understanding those feelings is also part of becoming a more empathetic person.
I wanted my daughter to understand, too, that just because she might come to empathize with the reasons that some of her classmates were upset with her does not mean she has any responsibility to stop making good choices in order to protect people from having bad feelings about bad choices. In fact, that uncomfortable feeling that we get when we don’t make a good choice or when somebody challenges our worldview is supposed to act as a signal for us to think about why we might be feeling that way and get us to evaluate our thoughts and behaviors so we can make necessary adjustments.
I told my daughter how proud I am of her for the choices she is making and especially for how she is stretching herself beyond her goal of trying to understand how people are feeling to use that understanding in choosing to act in a way that exemplifies how she is living the values of kindness and compassion that she is realizing are important to her. Finally, I thanked my daughter for the important reminder that it’s not enough to just think about doing the right thing. Empathetic thoughts alone are only so helpful- but if we can use our empathy to spur us to take action then we really have the opportunity to both make a difference in someone’s life and challenge the thinking of those around us.