The Value of Empathy
I believe in the value of empathy, but I fear it has been on a decline. I never truly understood the extent until I began teaching. I walk through the halls and hear some of the most mean-spirited comments, the new favorite saying being, “You are so ugly.” They claim that it is a term of endearment, that they all know it’s just a joke. I try to tell them that when they call each other ugly, it only makes them seem self-conscious and insecure. Of course, because I am an adult, I am lame and therefore have no idea what I am talking about.
It’s become nearly impossible to teach novels because, no matter what terrible misfortune befalls a character, all that seems to concern my students is how stupid they believe the character to be. There is no way to convince them that Dante went to Hell for the good of others, and after hearing about Mary Shelley’s life of tragedy and despair, one of the only comments I got was, “She must have been really butch looking.”
From what I have observed, kids don’t feel that it is necessary to follow Atticus Finch’s adage about walking a mile in another man’s shoes. I want to take a different approach to empowering the young minds of which I have been entrusted. I agree with the most recent theory that children need their emotions to be validated, but I also believe that there is nothing wrong with pointing children in the right emotional direction. I fully support the idea that teens need to be assertive so they won’t be taken advantage of by this cold, hard world, but I also want them to feel the desire to make the world a little less cold by showing others warmth and compassion.
I have spent my life learning lesson after lesson about the art of empathy, and I still sometimes have to “put on” another person’s shoes to get to that place of compassion. I am, at times, roped in by the siren song of apathy. I will often match my student’s sarcasm with a much more practiced and sharp wit. I might slightly mock their valley girl euphemisms and show annoyance at their lack of emotion over a particular passage, but when it comes down to it, I really want them to know the rewards of catching flies with honey rather than vinegar.
I don’t care how many times I hear, “Miiisss Shhaffer,” accompanied with a roll of the eyes, I am going to continue to let them know that empathy is a life-long commitment, but one well worth the trouble. I hope that if I continue to try to instill my students with empathy a lot of my “I don’t know about kids these days” worries will disappear.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.