Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Questioning Empathy

I present to you musings of an overtired Sarah  from around 1 am last night as she tried to sleep but couldn't seem to turn off her brain, thus recording those thoughts in writing here on the blog. I apologize in advance for grammatical errors and/or circularity. The final product might not be as pretty as some posts, but it is honest and authentic - which I tend to prefer anyway. And so, without further adieu, Questioning Empathy.


Lately I've been consumed with thoughts about empathy and how it occurs in others. It all started about a week or so ago while I was on a service trip with students to the city nearest to our school. During these trips (this was my third of this specific one) my students engage with different local organizations and programs that they could choose to serve for a year while they are seniors. The boys cook our meals - it's an all boys school, we don't just force the males to cook - and the faculty members facilitate discussions about various social justice topics like housing and hunger.

The discussions are typically engaging with a pleasantly surprising amount of student involvement. Questions are asked, presuppositions are challenged, and the idea of care for the other is usually taken away - at least an inkling of it is... We have to start somewhere, right? This time was different though. Or maybe it wasn't. Maybe it was the culmination of many tiny instance from the three other trips this year or maybe I was just in an off mood. 

Whatever it was, this trip left me with a haunting question about empathy, namely, can empathy be taught? Is it something you're born with? Are there those more prone to empathy than others? Is high school too late?

The optimist in me still believes that, yes, empathy can be taught. I also believe that no one is born hateful. Hate is taught. So why can't empathy also be taught? I believe empathy is developed and strengthened through meeting others and hearing their stories. As we listen, our imaginations move us into their shoes and allow a closer understanding of the other and what events in their life has led them to. But how do we get someone to imagine? To even try to imagine? Is their refusal laziness or incapability? 

What if I am wrong? What if you can't teach empathy? My many questions on the topic caused me to do what any good millennial does when faced with a question - google it. Actually, I searched for any Ted-Talks about empathy, but I did that through Google. Tomato, tomato. There were a surprising number of videos where people asked similar questions. One in particular had a woman sharing her study of altruism and it appears there is a part of the brain correlated to acts of kindness. Altruism can be connected to the size of this particular piece of the brain. It's not empathy exactly, but I would say the two are very much correlated. 

What if being empathetic is genetic? I always attribute my ability to empathize to my mother and grandmother and how they raised me. But when I asked my mom "how do you teach empathy," our discussion led to a recognition that she and my uncle were raised in the same house by the same woman and he is not an empathetic individual. Is it different in males vs females? Is age a factor? 

I'm rambling now and I know this post is completely out of left field, but I would genuinely love to know your thoughts on empathy. Do any of you know of any good sources on the topic? I'm genuinely considering digging into a deeper study of the topic and would love any recommendations if you have them. 

Thanks for listening as I ramble friends.