Let me start with a different question, because as you will learn, my approach is all about the questions we ask.
Who am I that you should read my blog? I am someone who has had a powerful capacity for empathy all my life, in touch with my own and other people’s pain for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of trying to understand what would motivate one child to bully another. I would feel the pain of the victim, who was tormented and teased for nothing more than being a sensitive or passive child. I would try to understand the motivation of the kid who pissed on another kid’s pillow at summer camp. Is he trying to impress his peers, is he unhappy at home, or is there some other reason? I knew that something must be wrong. I was convinced that these bullies were somehow damaged by a world where emotional vulnerability was seen as a weakness to be exploited when we find it in others, and hidden and repressed in ourselves. And I believed I was living in a world with so much conflict and unspoken pain. On top of this, I felt very alone in thinking about this, because I saw nothing in the world around me to suggest that other people were interested in the emotional well-being of the bully. Even to this day, I see very little dialogue suggesting compassion for people who hurt people.
By the age of 13, I had done a great deal of babysitting, and by 14, I was spending my summers as a camp counselor. I was great with young kids, because they respond so quickly to people who pay attention to them. I think almost everyone can relate to young children. They are so full of life, still experiencing and expressing the wide range of emotions that make us human. They are completely vulnerable, and in relation to them, we are tremendously powerful. I discovered how easy it is to make a child happy, and share their joy. There is nothing like the feeling that comes from comforting a sad, angry, confused, frustrated child by connecting with them, understanding how they see their problem, and helping them resolve it. Working with these children taught me one of the great benefits of empathy. It allowed me to share in someone else’s joy, and to help them turn negative emotions into positive ones. Most people can relate to this. It’s one of the reasons we give people gifts, celebrate happy occasions, and do charitable things. It makes us happy to make people happy.
I also discovered that most people did not relate to children in the way I did. They did not empathize with children to the same extent, or at the very least, they were not able to get as much pleasure as I did from connecting with these kids. I recall a time when, as a 15 year old junior counselor, I ran to help a 5 year old who had soiled his pants and was left alone to try to get them off, while the other counselors ran around looking for one of the unit heads to deal with it. Where they saw a camper covered in his own shit, I saw a vulnerable child who needed comforting. Another time, I felt myself getting angry with campers who were running around “out of control”. I suddenly became aware of how my anger was really triggered by my belief that the other counselors were more focused on flirting with each other rather than ensuring a safe and fun environment for the kids. This was a profound moment for me. It was here that I realized that power gives people an easy way to establish boundaries with others. To let them know what we will tolerate and what we won’t. To establish our will over theirs. My urge to use my power to control these campers gave way to compassion and frustration. Compassion for the “out of control” campers who just wanted to have fun, and frustration with the other counselors who weren’t doing enough to create safe and structured fun.
By my late teens, I was volunteering with “at risk” kids, and by my mid-20’s, I was working with young offenders. Angry kids. I knew that if I was going to help them, I had to empathize with their anger. And that meant tolerating it. It meant not using my power to set boundaries the minute they directed their anger at me. It meant understanding that when they were angry, it was because something was out of balance. They were feeling misunderstood, frustrated, ashamed, unloved, judged, hopeless, you name it. Anger was their way of setting limits and avoiding vulnerability. The ultimate limit – “fuck off” to me, and “fuck the world” to themselves. The vulnerability I saw in the bullies in the schoolyard was right here in these kids. If I was going to help them, I had to help them get to the bottom of it and let it go. To go back to a place of balance. To feel better. To accept that fights don’t mean people don’t love you, and that if you just do your best to understand the other person, things will be way better. You will be less rigid, less stuck, less guilty, less insecure, less whatever. This is also where I discovered the true power of the hug. What a world it would be if all fights ended in hugs. The hug comes because there is understanding, contentedness, vulnerability, and ultimately emotional release and acceptance. It puts closure to the good fight.
So that’s my answer to the question who am I that you should read my blog. So why bother reading it?
I hope to use this blog to convince anyone who reads it about the urgent need for empathy. Not for today as much as for tomorrow. Empathy is the great equalizer. It allows for the powerful to understand the oppressed. For parents to understand their children, husbands their wives, winners the losers. Just as water always seeks out its own level, empathy levels the playing field. It makes it easier to achieve balance. Between all people, in all places. We live in a world where the consequences of imbalance are increasingly devastating, from the deeply troubled person with an assault rifle killing dozens of people in a few moments, to the powerful leaders who can, at the touch of a button, set off a bomb that will kill millions of people. A world where people find reasons to blow themselves up in the midst of revelers or everyday shoppers, fuelling fear and causing suffering on a mass scale. A world where we are destroying the very ecosystem we depend on because of our collective inability to reign in the power of the ones who care only about their own gain. Empathy causes us to feel the impact of our actions on others, and leads to a desire for win-win conflict resolution. It allows us to create more satisfying relationships, as we strive to achieve a balance of positive and negative emotions. And I will argue that when we increase our capacity for empathy, we care more about what happens to ourselves and other people on an emotional level, and this enhances the overall quality of our lives. The more we empathize with one another, the better place the world will be.
I look forward to making my case to those of you who read this and disagree with anything I’ve said. While I may not convince people that raising future generations of children with a much greater capacity for empathy will be necessary for our survival as a species, maybe I’ll at least convince some people to try a little harder in their own lives.
Thanks for reading,