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Empathy: Nature or nurture?

Empathy.  That quality of compassionate, understanding care extended toward others.  I have often wondered: is it nature?   Or, is it nurture?   Can we cultivate empathy, can we grow it?  Or Baby, are we just born that way?

I’d truly like to know.

Because the consequences really are far-reaching.  If we are born with it (or not), we mamas and papas might as well just save our breath and let nature run its course.  If we are truly born that way.  Or this way.   Or the other way, that is ‘the contrary’: as un-empathic individuals.

But if it is nurture, and we can truly develop this quality as we carry out our lives, then teaching has a critical role to play in building empathy into young and old alike.  And if it is nurture, then we had better not miss the boat, people.  We need to LEARN empathy.  Like we learn how to hold a spoon.   Like we learn how to hold a pencil.   Like we learn how to drive a bike.  And that learning begins in the home and it carries on into the education system and on from that in our professional world and on from that in our relationships both private and public.

Our lives truly depend on it.  The human race depends on it.  The state of the nations depends on it.   Peace in our time will never transpire without it.

Empathy is huge.  And it is far-reaching.  It must needs be reflected everywhere.   And so we must learn how to be empathic, caring individuals.  We must practice it, weaving it in and through each and every conversation and interaction we have with our fellow human beings throughout our day-to-day contact.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, in The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey says this.  When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.   It is empathy that separates the pebbles from the gems.  And we all crave that kind of friendship of which Nouwen writes.  But truly how many of us are that friend?  The ‘friend who cares’?  Who goes the extra mile?

As an educator, I am called to teach to the curriculum, aiming to meet certain outcomes for subject areas within the program I teach.  Accompanying this goal, I am called to uphold certain standards within my classroom that we teachers refer to as classroom management.   Teaching proper social norms and behaviors.  This often requires that we establish classroom rules and set up a routine and structure conducive to the law of the class.  In my room, I create a set of classroom rules each year with the students that they can agree to follow, as established and formed by them.  I often influence the ways in which these rules are written by asking the students how they would want to be treated.   How they would want others to interact with them.   And so, the rules come to reflect a classroom environment that upholds a certain standard and quality consistent with empathic, caring ideologies.

I create these rules with students for the specific purpose of teaching empathy.  Because I can always come back to the rules the students created themselves when teaching individual students lessons on empathy.  They all want others to show them that they care, they all want others to use helping hands, not hurting hands, and they all want others to be kind and caring in how they treat one another.   So with this in mind, then, the question becomes: how should we treat others so as to reap the benefit of what I so dearly want to receive back for myself?   That is, empathic care and concern. Of course, the answer is “treat people with empathy if you desire the same.”    The lesson is one of compassion, each and every time.

Beyond this most elementary of school-room lessons, what is considered essentially to be the Golden Rule, is the hope that students will find joy in empathic caring friendship and relationships with both peers and authority alike.  So that true empathy results: treating others with caring, loving concern even if that means they don’t return the favour.  For true empathy is not about me.  It’s about you.  And the students who master this lesson will go very far in developing a beautiful character as their life unfolds.

And I have often thought that as a teacher, my greatest breakthroughs with students have not been when they master addition and subtraction problems or even when they nail the allotted number of high frequency words in their guided reading.  Nor is it when there is perfect behavioral equilibrium in my classroom.  Nor better still, when students do something kind toward someone else with the hopes of being treated kindly back.  “No” to all the latter wonderful teaching moments.  My greatest breakthroughs have rather been when I have observed a student carefully and deliberately make a decision to act in empathy toward another student despite the response that comes back to them.  This is true empathy, selfless and purposeful.  And there is no greater joy as a teacher than to see moments like this unfolding like rare orchids in bloom.

For I believe.  Of all the character traits in this world worth striving for, empathy is one of the absolute greatest.  Because beautiful people don’t just happen.  They are made.   Through careful attention to detail.  By thoughtful consideration of feelings.  And via the heartfelt care and concern that emanates from the soul of a listening friend.

And without empathy training in our homes, our schools and in our workplaces, we will continue to deal with tragedy like Newtown and Boston.  We will see more of the same.  We will see more despair and heartache and sorrow.  Because empathy is a learned behavior.  And if not us, who will teach the next generation what it is to be an empathic, compassionate friend and fellow citizen of this small world in which we live?

Beautiful lives begin with empathy.  And these same lives are lived with compassion woven into each and every bright moment that follows ever after.  What a wonderful way to live.


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