We teach young children to consider the feelings of others in the hopes that they will grow to become empathetic adults. And yet, the glaring absence of empathy among adults is on display every day in news reports and social media feeds.
Psychological research has documented a dramatic decline in self-reported empathy over the past three decades. Researchers suggest this growing empathy deficit may be fueled by several factors, including chronic stress and isolation by social class.
When I think about the experiences that have helped me break down my assumptions and increase my capacity for understanding, I wonder if we have been teaching empathy all wrong. Often, we tell children how another person might feel or react in a given situation, but the most powerful lessons come from listening, witnessing and doing. Perhaps we have to let children experience more of what we want to protect them from. Perhaps those experiences are what make them stronger and kinder.
These are the experiences that have most impacted my ability to empathize:
1. Spending time in a place that unsettled me. As a young reporter, I spent two months in a summer school session observing a gifted teacher trying to help remedial elementary school students learn how to read. The students lived in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in our metro area. Those months completely changed the way I thought about poverty in this country. It’s one thing to read about extreme poverty in America; it’s another to witness it for longer than a short visit. I’ve often wondered what would happen if every middle class and wealthy American had to spend a few weeks in the same environment as a child born into extreme poverty. How would this change our policy debates?
2. Listening to stories. I’ve met refugee families from all parts of the world. Listening to their stories of the lives they left behind and how they got here made debates about immigration more personal and real.
3. Teaching. It wasn’t until I spent an entire day teaching middle-schoolers that I truly appreciated how difficult that job is. I’m having the same perspective-changing experience by teaching writing to college freshman this semester. I have always admired teachers, but until I experienced their challenges firsthand, I didn’t really know what a toll it takes.
4. Witnessing grief. The hardest days of my job have been when I’ve talked to parents who had lost their children to accidents, illness or criminal acts. I have cried with anguished parents. Hearing and holding another person’s grief teaches you about loss, which teaches you about how to live.
5. Holding a hand. A friend called me after she had been violently raped. I drove her to a hospital, saw her bruises and held her hand. Sometimes all you can do for someone shattered by trauma is to show up -- repeatedly, consistently.
6. Traveling to less developed parts of the world. Before I could afford to travel, I read books that took me into other people’s lives and places. Literature has been shown to increase our empathy.
7. Experiencing profound loss. When you have firsthand experience of what it’s like to lose something precious -- a loved one, a desperately wanted pregnancy, your health, your home -- it inevitably changes you. The people I most admire find a way to channel that pain into compassion. I’ve tried to follow their example.
8. Making it personal. Even when you know something intellectually -- such as the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to leave an abusive relationship -- hearing it from a person who has lived through it adds texture and dimension to your understanding. That’s how I’ve felt when I’ve listened to the experiences of very successful women who stayed in abusive relationships until they were able to get out. Or loved someone brilliant who struggles with addiction. It’s harder to judge when you know people who have walked through the fire.
The more we can do to help ourselves -- and our children -- become more compassionate, aware and thoughtful, the better the world we can create.