Empathy: Exploring the Deeper Connections

As a community we continue to engage on our school theme for the year Empathy and Ethical Thinking. Whether it is through professional development for faculty and staff, programming with students, a more intentional focus in classes, or presentations to our parent community, it has been a tremendous experience so far this year.

Over the first few months, one theme that consistently comes up is the difference between Empathy and Sympathy. In a recent Upper School Morning Meeting, I showed the following video by Brené Brown.

The video vividly points out the differences between sympathy and empathy. This past week, the Parent’s Association welcomed Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Empathy Research and Training in Psychotherapy Research group at Mass General Hospital, to talk about her research in Empathetics. Near the beginning of her talk (click here for an earlier version at a TEDx Event), she highlighted the Greek etymology difference of “sympathy” and “empathy”. Sympathy coming from “sym” “pathos”, meaning with suffering, and empathy coming from “em” “pathos, meaning in suffering.

If we start with the most basic definition of these words, the difference is so clear. To have empathy literally means to be in the same feelings as the other person. This idea means a person has developed a deeper connection to friend, family member, colleague, or stranger by being in that moment with them, with those feelings. In addition to this clear definition, Dr. Riess highlighted that compassion is the action that we take when displaying empathy. She differentiated that the empathy was the internal feelings you have, while compassion is the action you take towards a person.

As teachers and school administrators, the question becomes what does this mean to our students? What are the ways that students may develop empathetic responses towards their classmates? And how do we guide students towards learning with empathy?

The first comes through the regular conversations we have on an individual basis, in small groups, and as a community. What does it mean for a child if they see a friend looking sad or more reserved? We are trying to help students understand that these are times to engage with their friends and not avoid them. In many ways, this has been something that Brimmer students have regularly displayed. Often, listening to their friends and helping them when possible. The more complicated situations for students come when a person’s actions may be hurtful. The automatic human response, especially adolescents, is to rebuke the person. With teenagers, this can often have impacts on social circles which just furthers any divide that may be created between each other.

What if instead, we were able to help the members of the community to have an empathetic response?

Our hope, through this year’s theme, is to help students move past the hurt and work to understand what the other person may have been feeling. Perhaps someone is not hanging out on the weekends, because they have a family member that was recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Or could someone that is carrying a lot of anger, be carrying guilt for a decision they made at a different time.

In our classes, we are highlighting the importance of empathy as well. This takes a front row seat in Humanities and Creative Arts classes, where the foci of these classes is the human experience. Just imagine the last book you read or show you watched and the connection you developed with the characters. In history, teachers are helping students see history through more than one lens. This fall US History students have debated George Washington’s decision to maintain the status quo on slavery and recently discussed the question- should we celebrate Christopher Columbus or think about Thanksgiving in a different way based on the experiences of people that were colonized by Europeans?”

In our design classes, students regularly are working to understand the user as they developed their ideas. As a parent recently mentioned to me, “empathy is one of the pillars of design.” This comes to life in classes like Problem Solving for Design and Architecture, as students spend significant amounts of time learning about the needs of the users and important cultural information. I would invite you to explore more at the BrimmerID portfolio page.

Regardless of where students may end up falling on these debates, breaks from the normal routine provide an opportunity to pause and reflect. Whether the time-off means time with family and friends, volunteering, or just a slower pace, I hope that students can use the time to connect in a deep, meaningful, and empathetic way.

 

Tree of Life Reflection

After a night of celebration and excitement with the Red Sox winning the World Series, Mr. Vallely and I want to take a moment to reflect on two more solemn things from this weekend.

I want to start by taking a moment to reflect on the antisemitism this weekend that resulted in the murder of 11 members of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, PA.

I can still remember the smell of smoke and charred wood from when I was 13. Just a few weeks before my Bar Mitzvah, a man had come into my synagogue in Albany, NY, dousing the pulpit and ark with gasoline, and setting it on fire in order to destroy the holiest part of the building. The person came into the synagogue for no other reason, other than it was a Jewish building. Thankfully no one was hurt and though the damage was extensive, it would eventually be repaired. For me, this was not my first nor would it be my last experience with antisemitism. There had been and would be more swastikas painted and engraved on walls, derogatory comments directed at friends, and pennies thrown at me as I walked to my synagogue. Yet, despite these experiences, like most, within the walls of my place of faith there was a sense of safety.

However, something has changed over the past few years. We have seen people feel emboldened to use hateful speech. We have seen words of hate and bigotry turn into more deadly actions. Targeting specific faith base communities because of their beliefs or the way they appear. A shooting at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, SC in 2015, and The Islamic Center of Quebec in 2017 are just the first ones that come to mind. Hate-filled people searching out those that had a different skin color or held a different faith.

Then. This weekend. This weekend we experienced a person filled with such vitriol go into the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA with the intention of killing as many Jewish people as possible. Another example of unchecked hate that has taken the lives of at least 11 people. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons.

Words are so powerful. They have the ability to build people up or to cut them down. They have the ability to build deep, deep, profound connections or to develop deep misunderstandings that lead to inhumane beliefs. While this inexcusable tragedy has left many with more questions than answers, out of darkness there comes light. The days after this tragedy have shown an outpouring of support- the Pittsburgh Penguins canceling a Halloween Party and hosting a blood drive instead; church communities offering to line the entrances to synagogues to show solidarity and provide safety in numbers; Muslim organizations raising tens of thousands of dollars to support the victims’ families; and an outpouring of love and kindness. We only need to look at the overwhelming response of support across the country to understand that our world is not as broken as it sometimes feels.

When my childhood synagogue completed rebuilding the damaged area, it included a thirty foot stained glass window of the tree of life. In Squirrel Hill, PA, The Tree of Life synagogue’s namesake is a symbol in western faiths of peace and tranquility. Amidst the turmoil and chaos of our world, this symbol serves as a reminder to lead with kindness and love.

To honor the victims of this tragedy, let the words you use be a beacon for building people up, creating understanding, and bringing about peace. By doing this you can be a part of the light that pierces through the darkness.

A version of this statement was shared at Morning Meeting on Monday, October 29, 2018. It has been edited for this format. In addition, thoughts were shared by Carl Vallely on the internment of Matthew Shepard.

At the Intersection of Empathy and Ethical Thinking

I love going to the movies, and when a friend asked if I wanted to see Mission: Impossible, I could not resist the offer. So, there I was sitting in the movie theater enjoying some popcorn and ready to escape to the fictional world, when right at the start of the movie, within the first five minutes, Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, was faced with a critical decision. Should he protect the plutonium that could be used by the bad guys to create a nuclear weapon or save his teammate and close friend? Here right in front of me, Ethan Hunt was at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking, living out our theme for the year. And I was left wondering, how does one make this type of decision?

As you heard from Mrs. Guild and Mr. R-V, at the heart of empathy is being an authentic listener and working to understand and share the feelings of others. Ethan Hunt knew what his friend was feeling and wanted to help him, even if his friend was telling him not to worry and to save the world.

At that moment Ethan Hunt had to make a choice–to save his friend or to save the world? What is the correct decision? Now, I do not want to share a spoiler, but I know we cannot all be super spies and manage to both make the empathetic choice, while also saving the world from disaster. However, I have seen plenty of evidence of your classmates being engaged at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking.

Last year the Middle School and Upper Schools came together to fundraise for hurricane relief. With three devastating hurricanes, Harvey, Irma, and Maria having ravaged Houston, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean Islands, a group wanted to help as many people as possible. However, they were faced with a decision on how to best direct the resources. Was there a right way? Is there always a right decision?

The second example from 2017-2018 was the emergence of a new community service effort–the Prison Book Program. In this program, students volunteered on weekends to send books to incarcerated people. Again, at the crossroad of empathy and ethics. Should someone in prison receive our help?

In both cases, students found ways to connect with the people impacted and made informed decisions. Whether it was finding an organization to distribute the funds efficiently or learning that by sending books to people in prison and supporting their development, it helps reduce the likelihood of them returning to prison, students used the research and critical thinking skills they learn in class to collect the necessary information to make an empathetic, ethical decision.

So, this year when you continue to volunteer at organizations such as Greater Boston Food Bank, Community Servings, Wingate Senior Center, the Charles River Clean-up, or by identifying organizations on your own, you are attempting to feel and understand what another person is going through and choosing to find a way to help those people.

This intersection of empathy and ethical thinking does not just live in the realm of social justice. It lives in our classes and hallways as well. As Mr. R-V just said, this is the purpose of the humanities is to challenge our understanding of the world through a different medium, to feel the story of another human, and to engage intellectually about the decisions confronted in the text. When you combine empathy and ethics, you get real life. Every day, you face these moments–a friend upset about something that was said about them, looking at the ethics of gene manipulation in science, or learning about another culture through our global programs.

But, I also want to challenge you today, as we start a new year. How can we as individuals and as a community do better? How can we understand what a classmate or colleague is going through and how can we better help them? Can we lead with kindness? Can we work towards having more in-person interactions and fewer online, where words can be misinterpreted and are often hurtful? The world around us is modeling something different, but let’s be better. Let’s be a model for empathy and kindness.

As anthropologist Jane Goodall said, “Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world.” “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world [and people] around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” What do you want your story to be this year? You do not need to be a super spy named Ethan Hunt. Let your story be one where you choose your path, listen and feel for those around you, and make choices that will better our community and thus our world.