Every day we move from place to place not realizing that those around us are doing incredible things. Projects, jobs, relationships that some may think are normal, but when you take a longer look, you find are inspirational and changing the course of the future. This edition of our shoes blog is yet another example of a courageous person taking the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. This story began on a chairlift I was riding with my son and another person. Most of the time I exchange pleasantries or small talk with those I ride up the mountain with and today was no exception. She asked my son something about his snowboard, which led to talk of our kids and careers. We found quick common ground when we realized we were both educators. “Where do you teach?” I asked, and without hesitation she said, “Columbine High School”.
Now, the Path2Empathy Crew is a group of educators that know full well the challenges school districts are facing when it comes to school safety and mental health. This conversation began in April of 1999, when the Columbine High School tragedy changed the face of education in America. Columbine is an event where you remember where you were when you heard the news, like 9/11. So to any educator, Columbine represents a bit of holy ground.
As I quickly learned, Mandy Cooke not only currently taught at the famous school, but was a student there when the shooting occurred. My mind started to race with questions, and the more we talked the more I realized, the rest of the world (myself included) has frozen the events of 1999 in our minds so that is all we see, but to the people who lived through the tragedy and have courageously chosen to go back, they are focused on their students and the future. Mandy teaches history, but we believe her presence in the classroom is so much more. She is a beacon of resiliency and strength that shines in her determination by coming back to a place of pain in order to impact the future. According to Mandy, she is not the only survivor/staff member who has chosen to return and make a difference with kids at CHS. She is one of many who has not let tragedy get in the way of helping the community they grew up in. We had the pleasure of interviewing her, and on this 19th anniversary of the tragic events, we hope you find that the best stories of empathy are often because people go back to a place of fear or pain in order to help others. These are her shoes...
Please tell us a little bit about who you are (what you do, where you live).
My name is Mandy Cooke. I'm a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. I grew up in Littleton and also graduated from Columbine. My husband and I decided to buy a house in the area, so our kids will grow up here and attend Columbine as well.
What was your experience with the tragedy at Columbine High School in April 1999?
I was a sophomore at Columbine on April 20, 1999. I was in math class when the fire alarm rang. We all thought it was a fire, but then our teachers told us we needed to cross Pierce (the major road that passes in front of our school). We had teachers stop traffic for us to get across the street to Leawood Park. It was pretty chaotic and no one really knew what was going on. One of my best friends came out of the main hallway along with a large group of other students. She told me there were people shooting. By then, news helicopters were above us and there were rumors that there was shooting inside the building, on the roofs, and possibly the helicopters. We were told to leave and go find a safe place to be. We started walking to a kid's house whose dad was a police officer. I didn't know this student because he was a senior, but a large group of students went there.
We were watching the news and we heard that there were 50-100 students dead. They also said if you were a student watching you needed to go to Leawood Elementary school or Columbine Library. I told my friend we needed to go to Leawood because I knew my dad would be there...I just had a feeling. We were able to get a ride to Leawood and were ushered into the gym. They made students stand on the stage and wait for parents to arrive. My dad found me and wouldn't let go of the back of my dress as I walked around to talk with my other friend's parents.
I couldn't even tell you what time it was, but eventually, we walked to my dad's car and went home. Soon my sister entered the door crying. She was in college at UNC in Greeley, Colorado. My mom taught the feeder middle school and was able to come home after a long day of being on lockdown. The phone wouldn't stop ringing with family and friends calling to check if I was okay.
What was it like to be a student coming back to school at Columbine in the Fall of 1999, after the shooting?
It was honestly weird to come back to school in the fall of 1999. To protect all the students from the media, parents held hands and created a barrier so we could walk into the building in peace. I remember there was a big rally before we entered the building. The year was quite a blur. Unfortunately, there were a lot of bomb threats and other tragic events that happened during the 1999-2000 school year.
What is your fondest memory of your time as a student at Columbine?
My fondest memory as a student at Columbine was attending my senior prom with my friends. I didn't have a boyfriend, so going with a group of friends was the best! A group of about 20 girls had a pre-prom breakfast and then we all got ready together, took pictures, and then headed off to the dance and later after-prom.
When you graduated from Columbine in 2001, did you think you would be back?
When I graduated Columbine I knew I was going to be a teacher, but never did I think I would land back at Columbine. But I know now it is the school I was meant to be at.
Why did you become a teacher? Did someone inspire you?
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher from a young age, but lots of teachers I had at Columbine inspired me to be a high school teacher. My mom was also a teacher and definitely had some influence on the career I chose.
Once you decided to be a teacher, you found your way back to Columbine only this time to teach the next generation of Columbine students. Tell us about that journey back.
The journey back to Columbine was pretty simple. My first job was at another high school, but it wasn’t a fit, so I interviewed at Columbine. I got the job and have been here since 2007!
We can’t help but see the redemptive pieces of your story. Living through tragedy but coming back to inspire and teach. How has your circle back to Columbine impacted your story and your students?
I share my story of what I experienced at Columbine every year with a new group of students. I share it so they know a part of who I am, so students are willing to share who they are with me. I have formed so many wonderful relationships with students and it truly is a special school to attend and work at. We have a saying, "You're a Columbine Rebel for life and no one can take that away from you." Students and teachers really do take this to heart. I tell my students they need to treat each other with kindness and respect and as they leave my class, I tell them to make good choices.
Empathy by definition is: to walk in another’s shoes so to experience how they live, feel, and be. How has empathy and your experience as a student of Columbine High, equipped you to relate to your students today?
I believe I'm more understanding of the issues they are going through. I'm not sure if it's the experience that I went through or just understanding how difficult high school really can be. I'm more patient with my "squirrely" kids and also those students who are not motivated to do work.
What is different about Columbine now from when you were there as a student?
Columbine is not that much different from when I went here. We are still a regular high school. I believe students are challenged more academically and that is a good thing!
With an average of 1 school shooting per week, these tragic events are never far from us. What do you go through when you see other school shootings? Do you have any thoughts on how to better protect our schools so these tragedies stop being part of the norm?
Each shooting affects me differently. I feel sad for what those students are going to experience in the coming weeks, months and years. I do believe we need to change our gun laws to make weapons less accessible, but also believe we need better mental health care. Both need to be a priority.
What do you hope your students say about you when they leave your classroom? Columbine High School?
I hope my students leave my classroom with the feeling that they will always hold a special place in my heart. I also hope they realize they can always come back and talk, receive a hug, get advise or whatever they need at the time because they will always be part of a much larger Rebel family.
Mandy Cooke- Teacher, Survivor
Since 2001, I have stood in front of over 1 million teenagers in over 2,000 public schools to present a message of hope and truth. What I’m about to say is pretty basic but very important. With all that is happening with our students and in public education, I’m asking you to read my submission entirely. You might not agree with everything, but I’ve stood in front of high schoolers long enough to walk in their shoes, hear their stories, and develop my own thoughts of what is going wrong.
Monday, February 12, 2018, two days before the Florida tragedy, I spoke at a high school that had a fatal school shooting in September of 2017. I spoke to the whole student body, grades 6-12, the staff, and to the parents. We started at 7:30 A.M. and until 9 P.M. I listened, spoke, comforted, and relived the saddest day in the school and community’s history. The day where one student decided with a simple coin flip to walk into a school and start shooting. Death, destruction, all surrounding a place that is meant for students to better themselves with knowledge. How have we gotten here?
After having direct access to students and school administrators over the past 17 years, my message is this: We can look at all the symptoms of social dysfunction ad-nauseam. We can say it’s drugs, we can say it’s guns, we can say it’s a lack of family connections, mental health, we can say social media has made things worse, movies, video games, and so on. All those things are valid and important to consider, but the simple truth is that the root of all of this is personal value.
When people don’t feel valuable, they don’t act valuable, and they certainly won’t value others. If, in your mind, it is acceptable to decide whether people that you have known most of your life will live or die depending on a coin toss, then you don’t value human life. I’m sure bullying and social profiling play a role, just like there is everywhere, but I think the student hated himself first. When I was watching the news about Florida and watched as the shooter was apprehended, I said, “That kid was dead years ago.” He already decided that life had nothing for him.
How do students get like that? How does it get that bad? I don’t know everything, but I do know this: There is a primal need in all of us to be accepted and loved, which, for better or worse, translates into our personal value. People find their identity in a family. When that family is dysfunctional or abusive, broken or absent, it does a lot of damage. If the people who live up close to you, who know you better than anyone, truly love and value you, then the natural byproduct of that is a sense of true worth. If they know your shortcomings and still believe in you, there is a security that comes from that, one that cannot be measured. But even in the best of homes, that message doesn’t always get through.
I was not a very nice person to people when I was young and in school. It changed drastically in 9th grade when someone invested in me and communicated by how they treated me that I had value. Up until that point there was wrong messaging coming to me about my value. When that changed, my benevolence was a natural byproduct of my own discovery of how valuable I was. I liked people because I liked me.
What we have seen on the news has been incredibly tragic and hard to watch, but to me the bigger tragedy is the slow death of thousands of young people who accept a lesser version of themselves because they don’t see their true value. They have got the message somehow that they are not valuable. They may not walk into school with an idea of planning an attack, but they will self-medicate with drugs, self-harm, or unhealthy relationships. This is the real epidemic that we are facing. It becomes a societal issue when enough individual people in a specific community or school accept a life that is less than their potential. When I speak my goal is not to have everyone feeling good by the time I’m done talking. We call our program Value Up for a reason. Fighting against a societal norm isn’t a feel-good message. Accepting a norm that confines them to a category or social class is easy. If you accept it, there is no fight. It’s painless, but devastating.
When people feel valuable, they act valuable and treat others that way as well. My hope is that some will walk out with a renewed sense of knowing that they need to fight for their value. That some of them will need to fight harder because they have received a message that they are not valuable by people who were supposed to value them the most. We have lost the sanctity of human life and replaced it with this performance-based value system.
I recently likened a student’s value to a piece of gold. You can’t take the value out of gold. It is intrinsic. You can abuse gold, you can neglect gold, but at the end of the day, the value never leaves. It’s built in. Now, if you took that gold and made a Rolex watch out of it, it’s more functional than a hunk of gold. It’s probably more fun to be a watch than a hunk of gold, but it’s not more valuable. We live in a world that assigns value based on performance. If we are the Rolex, then somehow we are more valuable. We send the message that your value is conditional. You have to perform to be valuable. Through the years, I have watched young people get weighed down by the constant pressure to be something in order to be valued. Some may look at young people today and call them lazy and apathetic. I see fear, not apathy. If they fail, it will destroy them, because their value is based on performance. They think not trying is better than trying and failing.
A couple of years ago I had a mom who lost her son to an overdose ask me a question that was both easy and hard to answer. After he passed away, she told me she remembered her son complaining over and over about the pressure he felt being a teenager. At that point, she had no idea that he was using drugs at all. She said that she felt bad because when he would bring up the pressure he felt he was under, she would trivialize it, because she didn’t understand it and she had been looking at it from an adult perspective. Her question to me was, “Do you know what pressure he’s talking about? Because I still don’t know.” The answer is: that performance-based value comes with an immense amount of pressure. Unfortunately the weight of that pressure might not be revealed until it’s too late.
In my pursuit to find knowledge and answers to the questions facing parents and youth, I read “A Mother’s Reckoning” by Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, who was one of two shooters at Columbine High School back in 1999. I didn’t want to read it at first, because I didn’t want to read a bunch of excuses on how they missed what had to be obvious signs. I knew students who were killed in the Columbine tragedy, some were my youth group kids, so I have a personal connection to what happened. What I got out of the book was that the Klebold’s really tried to be good parents to Dylan. They were in his life. They went to his activities, worked on an old BMW together, went on college visits, and loved him. The disconnect was they were in his life, but they weren’t in his head. The image he projected to them was what they wanted to see, but inside his head was a kid that was severely depressed and hated himself immensely. Dylan died a long time before April 20, 1999. Here are some quotes from the book.
“I wish I would have spent much more time and energy determining the climate and culture of the school (and how appropriate it was for Dylan) than assessing it academically.”
“Unfortunately, we did not have the slightest idea what his daily life was really like at school.”
“[Back then] I would have told you that Dylan couldn’t have fooled me.”
“Given the chance to travel back in time, I would ransack every nook and cranny of my children’s rooms, looking for not just drugs or goods that we haven’t bought, but for any window into their inner lives.”
“When we search our children’s rooms or read their journals, we risk that they will feel betrayed. However, they may be hiding problems they cannot manage themselves.”
“[Dylan’s] journal revealed a vast chasm between our perception of his reality and [his] own perception of it.”
“Dylan was loved, but he did not feel loved. He was valued, but he did not feel valuable.”
“He was valued, but he did not feel valuable.”
How many young people right now are sitting on their bed dying inside because they don’t feel valuable? Their performance wasn’t good enough today on whatever stage or stages they happen to be on. Our society is under this plague of constant performance for value. I probably won’t be able to change that, but I will do my best to try and see everyone that I encounter the way God made them from the very beginning: with incredible value!
Mike Donahue- Father, Speaker, Author, Friend to 1,000's of Teens, Founder of Value-Up
For a free book or for information on Mike's message click here: https://value-up.org/
I consider myself to be an open person. I love diversity. I have an adopted son who looks very different than me. People from other cultures are intriguing and I have found all my interactions with them to be beautiful and engaging.
That said, I did not expect to be sharing a meal with a former Muslim extremist who had terrorist ties. Life has a way of surprising you.
Just some brief background here. I don't talk much about the fact that I am co-owner of a company that works in leadership development. But every year, my colleagues and I attend a leadership forum where people share creative ideas about how they are implementing different leadership practices in the corporate, private, educational, government, and non-profit sectors.
At a conference, I sat in on a session that was led by Hanif Qadir, said former Muslim extremist. He told a bit of his story to start off the session. He is a Muslim, born and raised in London. Shortly after the war in Afghanistan began, he was recruited by a radical Muslim extremist group to come to Pakistan and Afghanistan and join in the fight against the enemy- namely, Americans.
Along with many others, he was upset about all of the killing of innocent people (new statistics that I researched personally show that 116,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan alone) - he wanted to help stop it. On the streets of London he was approached by someone who abused his empathy towards his people who were dying and convinced him the only way to help was to go to the Middle East and join in the fight. They twisted the words and context of the Koran, using his deep faith in Islam to persuade him that what they were doing was the only way. It wasn't until later that a Muslim in Afghanistan urged him to see how the radical group he was working with was only causing more death and violence. Indeed, his compassion for people's pain had been played upon and used to radicalize him and his faith. He wanted out. He was bold enough to go to the extremists and tell them he wanted to leave and refused further participation. In all reality they should have killed him, but he somehow managed to talk his way out and went back to London.
It was then that he realized what danger the Muslim youth on the streets of London were in. Upon his return to England, Hanif and his brothers put all their resources and energy into reaching out to the vulnerable Muslim youth in London. Many of them were being approached and told the same things that he had been told - that violence was the only way. They were being radicalized. With a Muslim population of well over 2 million people in London, Hanif realized what was at stake if the wrong people got a hold of the Muslim youth - many of whom were already involved in gang violence. Hanif and his brothers founded The Active Change Foundation, a youth center, where they host discussions and workshops that encourage the kids to think for themselves and be able to identify radicalization tactics and see another way. He started a youth leadership program, which gets kids off the streets and focuses on developing them in positive ways so that they can be voices for peace and change. He is viewed by government officials as a leading counter-terrorism expert, as he has the unique advantage of knowing the tactics extremist groups employ.
The work he does is dangerous. There are many Muslims who don't support what he is doing. He receives much hostility from within his own community. His family has been attacked and threatened to the point that when Hanif goes out of town, a police officer comes and stays with his family to protect them. And yet, he believes enough in the importance of his work to press on despite this. So, that's a little background on Hanif. Fast forward to dinner.
One evening we had a dinner event that everyone from the conference attended. I was sitting with my coworkers when I looked over in the corner of the room and noticed Hanif and Samuil (the 16 year-old he had brought with him who is a part of the leadership program) sitting at the end of a large table by themselves. So I left my coworkers and walked over to their table, asking if I could join them. They warmly said yes. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous. After all, what does a white, Christian woman say to a male, former Muslim Extremist?
We just talked - turns out we are both human beings. He told me more about his work and the challenges that he faces. He talked about their successes. He talked about his family and his faith. We talked about how our past shapes our future course. We had much the same conversation that you or I would have had if we had sat down together over a meal.
I learned that we shared similar passions. Both of us care about the younger generations. Both of us want to ensure they grow up empowered to make good choices, which will ultimately help them change the world. Both of our hearts are compassionate towards those who suffer. Both of us are energized when unlikely sources unite to make a difference together.
I learned that I was holding views of Muslims in general that were wrong, as much as I didn't want to think I was. There is fear in the unknown, and, truth be told, I haven't known many Muslims. In America especially, the media shapes our opinions of Muslims - and not for the better. We are subtly and not so subtly taught to think that most Muslims are violent extremists and that is simply not true.
I learned that there is power in humility. I told them that I was a Christian and that I realized many, American Christians especially, have been perpetuating hate and judgment towards Muslims. I told them that I didn't think Jesus was proud of that at all and that I believe He wants us all to have love for each other.
I learned that we've both experienced and propagated the worst of our respective religions. He pursued violence as the only way and I pursued judgment, which in the end is a form of violence itself. Just like him, I have had people twist and take out of context the words of the God I love until, in the end, He looked nothing like who He really was. I was sucked in and acted accordingly. While the damage Hanif inflicted may have had a physically violent bent, the damage I inflicted on people was hate and rejection.
I learned that until we set our fear and our differences aside, nothing will ever change in this world. We have more in common with each other than we ever imagined. The fact that I could find more similar shared experiences and feelings with a former Muslim extremist than I could differences is proof of that. It took courage on both our parts. It took courage for Hanif to be drilled by Homeland Security on his way into the US to speak to us about the power of caring for others. It took courage for him to stand before a room full of Americans committed to leading well, not knowing what they might be thinking about the things he was sharing. And it took courage for me to walk across the room and spend an hour or so in conversation with someone I never dreamed I'd spend one second with. We listened and heard each other.
I'm left with the thought that the world would be a different place if we all displayed more courage and humility... if we let down our walls that make us feel so secure and at times, superior. What would the world look like if black and white, Muslim and Christian, Democrat and Republican, could just let our guards down and see each other for who God has made us to be? What would it look like to approach our differences with humility, rather than pride? I think we'd find deep friendships and meaningful interactions with our fellow human beings who are different than us. Too often we allow our differences to define us. Perhaps it's time we allow our commonalities to have a turn.
Amy Savage- Mother, Wife, Company President, Lover of People
As we slip into the new year I am always amazed at the changes I see in the kids in my classroom. The physical, emotional, and social beings that march through my door in January are so different from those I met in August. It is simultaneously awe-inspiring and scary to watch them grow and change before my eyes. It reminds me that these moments of childhood and adolescence are pivotal. These are the hours, days, years, that count toward creating who these individuals will be when they go off into the world. As an educator it is easy to focus on the academic needs. We want to foster a love of learning and an academic aptitude that will allow students to thrive in the adult world. But what about the social-emotional world? How do we build an equal level of competency in teamwork, problem-solving, community building, civic duty, kindness, understanding, empathy? The following excerpt from Tara Cousineau’s The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World provides helpful insight for parents, teachers, uncles, community members- all who have a hand and an opportunity to provide a meaningful interaction with our kids. We hope you enjoy her insight on how empathy and kindness are connected.
Alexi Seabourn- P2E Crew/Our Shoes Editor/Teacher
Excerpt adapted from The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World, Chapter 4, Tara Cousineau, PhD
“I’ve slept on these steps before. Me and the library, just taking a nap together.” A homeless guy, Michael, was giving a tour of our city—through his eyes. “This made me look at the streets differently,” reflected Sophie, my oldest daughter, “because they really shouldn’t be someone’s home.” Her friend Sabrina added, “The first moment we met Michael was so jarring. I was very shy and hesitant to speak to him, but now I see he’s such a normal, wonderful person.”
When Sophie and Sabrina were in eighth grade, they participated in an overnight urban outreach program called City Reach. They gathered to share hospitality, service, and reflection. Homeless people gave walking tours of city streets and answered any questions the kids had, an encounter that was both awkward and intimate. Five years later, I asked the girls what had really stuck with them. “People told us their stories and it changed the stigma,” remembered
Sophie. “They’re not all drug addicts. Some had normal lives before one misfortune struck after another. Most were nice and funny and personable. Some were facing really hard circumstances.” “When they explained how they find food and places to sleep, I was hit with the reality of their daily hardships,” recalled Sabrina. “Before, homelessness was a faraway problem that didn’t affect my life. But by literally walking the paths they live daily, I felt how real the problem is.” The girls were still moved by the experience. “It’s painful to imagine myself or any of my loved ones in that scenario,” Sabrina reflected. “It’s a heart-wrenching experience that I would never wish upon anyone.”
“Michael told us something that really stuck with me,” Sophie added. “He said that, when you are homeless, no one gets you. So everyone avoids eye contact. He said that if one person would just smile and say hi, he would feel better about life. My lesson was that even if I don’t give money, I can give a smile. Homeless people aren’t invisible.”
In high school the girls became student leaders, educating peers about homeless veterans and fundraising to help them. Now in college, Sabrina says, “The experience in eighth grade definitely shaped my identity as a young adult. I realized that so much of the world needs help, and I now plan to contribute to fixing their challenges.” When empathy starts close to home, even in the smallest of ways, it can transform into compassionate action.
To Walk a Mile in Another’s Shoes
Understanding the experience of another person is an adventure of love and imagination as you think and feel your way into their shoes. This takes courage because you will face pangs of judgment and internal conditions that block your kinder nature. You will step out of your comfort zone to witness another’s vulnerability—and your own. When you reach deep within to truly understand another person, vulnerability arises. “Experiencing vulnerability is a choice—the only choice we have is how we’re going to respond when we are confronted with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” writes Brené Brown. You can experience fears of association (“I’m not like them”) or rejection (“I don’t belong”) or unworthiness (“I’m not good enough for them”). Uncomfortable feelings can arise: anxiety, disgust, heartache, or embarrassment. Because by reaching out to others, you expose yourself.
Erika Lantz, producer of the Kind World radio series, puts it this way: Sometimes a little kind act is very small and it really doesn’t do anything to disrupt your day. It can be just a split second and you’re actually having a positive impact. Other times it does cost something to be kind. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. Sometimes it inconveniences you. It takes some of your emotional energy or just your physical energy. You have to be vulnerable to ask for kindness; you have to be vulnerable to talk about it. You also have to be vulnerable to show kindness.
This is the challenge of being kind.
Today’s societal pressures and attitudes reinforce independence, competition, social comparison, self-absorption, and personal achievement. They encourage feelings of separation and fear of other people.
As the educator and activist Parker Palmer wrote: The instinct to protect ourselves by living divided lives emerges when we are young, as we start to see the gaps between life’s bright promise and its shadow realities. But as children, we are able to deal with those “dark abysses” by sailing across them on the “wingèd energy of delight” that is every child’s birthright gift.
He is referring to a line in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke about crossing unimagined bridges. The bright energy that children have comes from the soul. Palmer points out that as we grow up and “cross the rising terrain between infancy and adolescence…we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles.” We begin to live divided, separated from each other, and become “masked and armored adults.” Of course, this is not good for our souls or for humanity. We need to cross bridges by leaping into moments of connection and vulnerability, like Sophie and Sabrina did, choosing to open our hearts.
Feeling connected, supportive, and supported means stepping beyond momentary comfort and taking risks to reach out. To be kind means you must cross relational space between yourself and others, which is filled with uncertainty. You will ask: Do I approach or avoid? Do I close my heart or expose it? It’s easier to put yourself in others’ shoes when you have something in common, have had a similar experience, or share a point of view. But what if you don’t? Is that reason to continue being separated? Or can you find the bridge made by a common humanity? Along the way, it helps to clarify your own feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and values, as the girls in the story did. It’s a process.
Kindness in Practice: Self-Awareness Breeds Courage
In the practice of kindness, there is a slippery point at which showing empathic concern and enacting kind deeds could go one way or the other: toward discomfort and distress or toward ease and joy. The direction depends on a sense of safety and your balance of empathic concern with how empowered you feel.
Pull out your journal and divide a page into three columns. At the top, name a painful situation people find themselves in. For example: A painful situation that worries or stresses me is: homelessness. Then write down the feelings, thoughts, and reactions that the situation brings up.
This exercise is simply about noticing your discomfort, preconceived notions, or judgments. I encourage you to do it whenever you are at the slippery point of kindness to cultivate the self-awareness you need to answer these questions:
What makes me uncomfortable about other people?
What do I need to feel safe or supported?
What conditions influence how empathic and empowered I feel?
What are the risks of identifying with others, especially with someone who is different from me?
What thoughts and feelings lead me to turn away, feel aversion, or feel numb?
Who am I leaving out of my kindness circle?
How can I bring kindness to this moment?
What are alternative responses?
It can be helpful to discuss your concerns with a trusted friend, teacher or mentor. When you intentionally cultivate love and kindness, respect and understanding, you will begin to dispel fears so that you can be propelled by courage. This gradually creates conditions for ever-more kindness to thrive in your everyday life.
Tara Cousineau, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, meditation teacher, well-being researcher, and social entrepreneur. She has received numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovative Research program. Cousineau founded www.bodimojo.com, and develops digital wellness tools for youth. She is affiliated with the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance in Somerville, MA. She is mindfulness trainer and chief science officer at Whil, a digital mindfulness company, and serves as a scientific advisor to www.kindness.org. Her upcoming book THE KINDNESS CURE (February 2018, New Harbinger Press) is a peerless book on kindness that exceeds any existing work on the subject.
About this time I think about what the last year has meant to me. I sat down and started looking at my goals wondering what got accomplished, what almost got done, and what I never even looked at. Shocker! Many things on my list didn’t get done. I had 33 goals for this year. Most of you are smiling at this point. Me too. What was I thinking? A list like this is not out of the norm for me. Since I was in my early 20s I have had the tendency to overbook and commit to too much. Striving would have been a good middle name for me.
I used my high school years to goof off and scrape by with a C average. Made a bigger mess of myself when I got to college. Had to leave a couple years after I got there because the school was looking at my GPA and questioning if college was a good fit for me. At 24 years I picked up a motivational book, and read it cover to cover in just a couple days. At that point something shifted in me and I started setting goals for myself.
Looking back today, there is one goal that sticks out from last year; I’m shocked I accomplished it and proud of my journey to get there. It’s probably the number one resolution made each year by most of the U.S.
Before going into my story, I am proud to announce that I surpassed my goal! The opportunity this month to write about empathy has created the perfect place to talk about this road of personal triumph. My hope is my story can encourage you.
I was an overweight kid. I love sweets, more than Jesus somedays. No, really I do. I got teased a lot at school. I remember listening to a family member tell my mom and sister that they were fat. Because we are family, I assumed they were talking to me, too. I can remember sneaking off to the cookie jar after my mom and sister went to bed.
One time, I went to this youth event called a Starvathon. In order to support the organization for kids who were starving in another country they got a bunch of teens together and asked us to not eat for 24 hours. Amazing cause. Couldn’t do it. I ended up cutting a hole in my pillow and stuffing packages of cookies in it before I left. Once everyone went to sleep I snuck my cookies out and had a feast. I was in a great mood the next morning. Can’t say the same for my friends, but I was hiding.
When I was 14 years old I moved in with my dad and he wanted me to lose weight. 30 pounds in one summer is how much came off. I remember it being tough but good. I felt better about myself. I felt more confident around my peers. Kids didn’t call me fat anymore. It was the early 90s so I was sure to roll my sleeves up a little bit to reveal these new muscles.
But my internal dialogue was now different. What I knew, was that even though I lost the weight and people started to see me differently, I was still fat. Interesting, once we have believed something about ourselves for a long time, even when our circumstances change it, it doesn’t necessarily mean the way we think about it has also changed. To say that I was cruel to myself would be an understatement.
“We often talk to ourselves in ways that we would never let a stranger or even a friend talk to us.” John Spencer
As you can imagine after enough internal chatter that was toxic I gained the weight again. Now, almost three decades later my weight loss and gain has been in the hundreds. I have been up 30 and down 30 more times than I can count on two hands. The next miracle diet. Run a marathon to lose the weight. Countless start and stop efforts. 48 hours of eating good and then back to the sugar. With each relapse comes more shame. With more shame comes more awful talk. All that equals a cruel internal world that I have lived for a long time.
I am a counselor/therapist by trade. A part of the process I walk clients through is listening to how they talk to themselves. The question I always pose is, “Are you naturally kind to yourself or critical?”
There is an interesting aspect of empathy that we may not think about. The amount of understanding you offer to other people is highly dictated by how much understanding you give yourself. Be kind toward your own weaknesses and you will often offer that same grace to others. More self-critical? The tendency to have less empathy for others happens.
I see clients gain ground in their personal stories just with a change in how they handle mistakes. The result: more living the way they wanted to. In that self talk they learned to be kind to their weaknesses instead of attacking.
On August 7th I started a weight loss journey. As you can imagine I was skeptical. At the same time I have seen clients have success with the addition of kindness and understanding in their own story. I decided I would do the same thing. When a negative, cruel, or down right mean thing entered my mind I would choose to be empathetic instead.
With this new idea on my mind I will be the first to say I was shocked by the amount of negativity. Amazing how much of that just came naturally for me. Seems like the start of August was as much about learning how to be kind to myself as much as it was learning how to eat. There were ups and downs. During the downs, I was compassionate. I traded out arrows for generosity. I stayed with kindness. I gained more empathy for my personal story that spanned 3 decades around this issue.
Looking back, I didn’t get many of my 33 goals accomplished for this year. I will plan cutting that by about, hmmmmm 90% for 2018. Some good did happen though. I dropped 15 lbs. more than I set out to and I've remembered what it was like to be mean to myself and I've stopped.
Let me encourage you with a thought this year. What if the empathy you gave this year started with yourself? What if you picked out the parts of your story that you tend to be mean towards and offered kindness and understanding instead? It’s more than a goal; it’s a good way to live. Maybe the first pair of shoes we need to gain empathy around is our own.
Bob Clifton- Father, Husband, Therapist, Kind to Self
How does she fulfill all her dreams and reach her long awaited goals when so many of those around her tell her it just won’t happen? It’s hard… hard to believe in herself when others are teasing her, hard to hold her head high when middle school classmates mimic her limp, hard to look forward to school when she has to stand back and watch while others laugh at her struggles. Most children and adults don’t understand her problems and so they avoid talking to her because they are not sure what to say. They leave her out of games, and she feels unwanted and lonely. Often, at night, when she’d ready herself for bed she would hide her face in her pillow and cry for long spells. It helped take away some of her pain.
Those feelings started for me (yep, that girl was me) when I was young, but didn’t get really bad until I was 11 or 12. The disease was diagnosed when I was 18 months old. They didn’t know what caused it, but called it juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. This is a disease that starts attacking healthy joints and causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and other problems. Because of all those symptoms, I had many surgeries: 57 to be exact. The doctors have replaced most of my joints with artificial ones: both of my knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and ankles. But just like an old car, parts wear out …so they replaced them all over again. Only this time around, my left elbow got infected, as did my right ankle. Surgeons tried over and over again to fix them but to no avail. The left elbow was removed, leaving my arm hanging limp. This prevented everyday activities like eating a sandwich or writing (I was left-handed). Eventually the same thing happened to my right ankle which required an amputation below my right knee. Then my right shoulder became permanently dislocated and my neck fused. Some days I’m tired of missing out on the fun and lying in hospital beds while they try to help me; some days, the inside of me screams… aarrgghh, enough of this!
What about you? What has made you feel different or left out? It doesn’t feel very good, does it? Have you ever left another child out because they were different than you? Truthfully, each of us is different in God-given ways. Some of us have a physical disability – that’s me. Others may struggle with their learning or have divorced parents. Some wear glasses or have a hearing loss. Whether it’s the color of your skin, the size of your body, your interests or abilities, how rich or poor you are, you still have worth. It’s important to find support through family and friends, a teacher you trust, a pastor, or a coach.
Let me wrap this up by telling you about Mike- he was a good friend to me. I remember one day in high school on the bus drive home, some bullies on the bus began to call me names and imitate the way I walked. When we got to my stop, I was scared to get up and walk down the aisle past all the mean kids. All of a sudden, Mike stood up… he was getting off at my bus stop instead of his. I listened as the kids began to jeer, called me cripple, and stood up to imitate the funny way I walked. Mike, who was a big-time football player on our high school team, turned to all those who were laughing at me and yelled, “Stop it! I’m her friend and I like her just the way she is.” Wow, did that ever make me feel better!! I mean, here’s Mike- big, important and popular- and he had the guts to stand up for me in front of everyone. I guess that’s when it hit me… if Mike could stand up for me just the way I am, then I should be able to do the same. I learned to believe more in myself and notice the good that lies within me. It wasn’t always easy (not even now), but it was always the right thing to do. My Christian faith grew stronger, and so did my resolve to never give up.
As a matter of fact, that year I began life’s trek into great adventures. I decided to explore... I went skydiving in Colorado and climbed Peru’s famous hidden city of Machu Picchu. I went on an African safari, boated down a tributary of the Amazon River in Brazil, and ate witchety grubs with Aborigines in Australia. I’ve rafted, gone four wheeling and snowmobiling, enjoyed ziplining in Costa Rica, and snorkeled on many islands in the Caribbean. I saw the Sphinx and pyramids in Egypt; I visited Russia, China, South Africa, and Europe. Of course, I had lots of help since my limitations would not allow me to safely venture out on my own. My husband and family helped, so did my friends. And that’s just the beginning. Now I’m a counselor and a college professor and my differences aren’t so significant! One of my favorite quotes comes from an actor named Christopher Reeve who played the first Superman. Later in his life, he became paralyzed after a horse riding accident. He wouldn’t give up and neither have I.
For everyone who thought I couldn’t do it,
For everyone who thought I shouldn’t do it,
To everyone who said, “It’s impossible,”
See you at the finish line!
Yes, indeed, I’ll meet you at the end of the race!
Meredith Edman- Professor, Mother, Counselor, Christian, Widow
Between 13-15% of the population is over the age of 65 and many of those adults are vulnerable.* They have lost a spouse, friends, health, even children, and at times the fear and loss of a home known to them for years. In Japan, it is not uncommon for several generations of a family to live under the same roof for life. Age is not looked at as a weakness but something to honor, and happiness and longevity of life have been attributed to strong family bonds through centuries of tradition that care for elderly family members. This trend can be seen in many different cultures, but in America at times, age is looked at as a weakness, undesirable, and even a burden. As a P2E crew we agree that a sign of an empathic spirit is one who is willing to care for the vulnerable. This is why Heather’s story is so important to us. Her willingness to think countercultural and look to an older generation for comfort, wisdom, and care, is at the heart of empathy. We hope you enjoy her story.
My Path2Empathy began through the loss of my parents and the feeling of loneliness that both my grandmother and I felt. This feeling has bonded us and I’m proud to say brought about healing. Spending time with people you care about the most should be a priority. Sometimes finding that priority comes through necessity.
While living in Massachusetts, in May 2007, I got a call from my step-mother informing me that my dad had died. When I hung up the phone, my heart sank. Like anyone can tell you, losing a loved one puts you in a flood of emotion that is chilling. The travel, the funeral, dividing possessions is even harder when the grief brings to light the severed or difficult relationships within the family. Strained is putting it mildly when describing the relationship with my dad’s wife. For example, he was cremated, and my stepmother was kind enough to give my sister and I some of his ashes, but said that none should go to my grandmother (his mother). Our grandmother was the hardest hit by our father's death and the fact she could not grieve the loss of her son respectfully was hard for me to swallow, and was causing my grandmother much pain. He died of a massive heart attack, the same way her husband died, and for reasons unknown to us she was being denied the honor of a grieving mother. It was clear after the insurance was paid my dad’s wife did not want anything to do with my grandmother or us.
Years after his death, I was living in Colorado and I would talk to my grandmother and she would often say that she was not sleeping well because she felt alone. It appeared she had so many friends in the apartment building where she lived, and it seemed like she was always on the go, so I couldn’t quite see why loneliness had set in.
My husband's parents began inviting her to holiday dinners and cookouts as well as taking her to doctor appointments. They became her surrogate family in Ohio so I knew she had support from people I trusted. Then in 2015, I watched my mother pass away in a Denver hospital after a two year battle with Lymphoma. Our extended family was shrinking, widening the space of my own grief and making me realize all we had left was my grandmother. Thankfully, my step-father was gracious and treated us with respect. He kept his word with calls and visits so the grieving felt easier in some ways. He is a good man and loved our mother. In the weeks and months after her death, I found myself thinking, "I need to call Mom." Then it would all come back. I was close with my mom. Although I had my husband and friends, I felt an emptiness. I felt alone. Watching someone you love die, changes you. You begin to think about what is most meaningful in your life. Time becomes very precious and spending that time with people who mean the most becomes a priority.
Back in Ohio my grandmother was turning 90, and her health was not the best although she still lived on her own and could still get around. Conversations with her became discussions about planning for her care if something happened. She was never keen on talking about this so we never really got anywhere. It was in one of these conversations that I asked if she would like to move to Colorado and live with us. With my own recent loss and experience with loneliness, I knew I did not want my grandmother to feel lonely anymore. It took some convincing, but much to my relief and joy she agreed. Around that time, my husband and I decided to build a house with my grandmother in mind and the plans and preparations began.
When you’re 90 years old, moving across the country is no easy task, but we all embraced the challenge. My mother and father-in-law stepped in and helped her with packing and getting rid of some of her furniture by selling or donation. I coordinated the moving truck and the people who packed it. My mother-in-law bought a ticket to fly with her and on February 1st, 2017, we came under one roof. It has been an adjustment as anyone can imagine. Grandma was used to living on her own and taking care of herself. My husband and I never had kids, and it has always been just the two of us. However, I felt we were both meeting a need in each other: Me missing my parents and her missing her son and independance. Having walked in her shoes of loss and loneliness, I understood what she had been talking about all this time. Now we have each other. She goes to the senior center, I go to work, she attends church, I work on my art, but together we are taking care of one another. Spending time with each other has become our priority. Could I have found someone else to care for her? Sure, I could have sent her money, or found other living arrangements. But caring for those who are aging is more than making sure they take medications and are clean; it is also making sure they aren’t lonely, and because I love my grandmother I knew I could do both. It is a high calling, one I am proud of.
There have been parts of this journey when I craved empathy from those around me. Some, like my step-mother, were unable to stand in my shoes and grieve with me. Others, like my step-father, met me on my path and kept pace as I processed the loss of my mother. My own grief gave me perspective on my grandmother’s experience and helped me to understand the weight of loss and loneliness. Although this path began with pain and heartbreak, it has brought me and my grandmother to a deeper understanding of one another and has given us a unique opportunity to bond.
Grandma has been settled for a while, and even though I know at some point it will be hard, I am happy to report she is sleeping well at night again.
Heather Pochatek- Daughter, Granddaughter, Caregiver, Teacher
Empathy by definition is to walk in another’s shoes so to experience how they live, feel, and be. To practice this skill with no reference point of experience to draw from can be difficult to navigate. In this world, no two people have the same life experience and as such it can feel like a daunting task to see ourselves in the shoes of someone who, on the surface, seems so different.
There is surplus at my local grocery store, and in my cupboard, but I know little tummies are going hungry tonight. Can I empathize with their situation? Someone received a clean bill of health today while another learned the treatment is not working. Can these two empathize with one another?
Often when we hear stories like this on the news, social media, or from friends we recognize that we feel bad but don’t know how to truly relate to the situation. Feelings of sympathy:(a feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune) are easily felt when you watch the news of those displaced, less fortunate, desperate, or without hope. But it cannot stop with a feeling. The feelings must move to action aka: empathy.
Empathy by nature is internal imagination accompanied by external action. As we move to make this skill a reality we must first recognize truth: We can never completely align every experience we have in life with that of another person. Sadly, we use this as an excuse to push people we wish to avoid out of our line of sight and refuse to look at things from a contrasting perspective. “I cannot relate to your experience, so your experience doesn’t matter.” But difference in experiences between two individuals cannot/does not default the call of empathy. There is no possible way to have the exact same story even if you are siblings growing up with the same parents, in the same house, school, community. Personality, perspective, and individuality play a role in how we perceive and experience. So we must build our definition of empathy not on differences but what we have in common.
Poor, rich, old, young, brown, white, woman, man, little, big, the one thing we all can relate to is loss. Have you ever lost anyone that was dear to you? Whether through sickness, old age, a tragedy? Have you lost a job, love, your life savings, a leg, hope, health, time, your home, youth, a pet, mental health, even innocence? We all at some point have had to reckon with the undeniable force of losing someone or something we love, depend on, or just plain enjoyed. By identifying our common experience with loss, our imagination can then help us appreciate/relate to anyone who has lost. The same can be said for what we gain.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend. Over the course of the evening we talked about who we are today, because we hadn’t seen each other for 6 years. It was evident our paths are not very similar (age, family, health) but what helped me get in her shoes was how she shared her story. I couldn’t relate to how it is to lose my husband but I have been in a place of grief and pain with losing someone I love. Also, comparing my feelings of loss to hers was done internally. I couldn’t say, “I know how that feels”, but I could say, “That must be incredibly difficult, tell me more”.
True empathy seeks to understand those feelings and validate them with action. The way I describe it to my students is this: With empathy you are either the runner or the coach.
The runner is someone who looks at another’s path or story and can identify pretty closely with the experience. For example, anyone who has lived through a natural disaster, has been uprooted from home, and seen their community destroyed can relate to our friends in Florida and Texas right now. They have run that race and know first hand how difficult it is. The other is the coach. You haven’t run the same race with the other runners but you show up every day for practice, encouragement, support, and help all through the experience. A coach has a reason (personal connection, similar interest, etc) to see the runner succeed and though he won’t run the race himself he is committed to seeing the runner through the training.
Your knowledge of loss is the vehicle by which you can practice both types of empathy. Both the runner and the coach are invested, both are called to action by the situation, not of themselves, but of the runner they seek to assist. This is an external, actionable way to show empathy, and allows us to show empathy for anyone not just those we are similar to.
So let’s get off the bench. I’ve never lost my home or city to an unmerciful hurricane but I can relate to loss, and by knowing that numb despair I can aid, encourage, and get involved, all with the skill of empathy. The fact that we can relate to loss and gain can be a common thread that moves us to action on behalf of another.
Jennicca Mabe- Runner, Coach
The shelves at the local store are stocked, the signs and letters are out with information all whispering “Back to School”. Back to studying, meeting others, and finding what another year of academic and personal growth means for our kids. What better way to show support for our students than by walking in their shoes. This next blog was written by a brave, articulate, young man starting middle school. His desire to say and hear kind words from others is infectious: a message the P2E crew is proud to promote in our schools, homes, and community. -P2E Crew
“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”- Henry James
When I go to school, I hear many hurtful words not only to me, but to other kids around me. Pervert, stupid, loser, jerkface. Some people don’t realize how powerful words can be. When I hear kids in line or at recess, and I hear these words used it makes me mad. As we get older, we lose more and more respect and we are more careless about our impact on others. This year I am going to start 6th grade. Sometimes, mostly at recess, I hear students cussing at each other and laughing about it. They dare each other to go around and say disrespectful things to kids even if they are older than them. It is the same thing when they make inappropriate gestures. It seems like no one wants to talk or even be around them. The worst thing about it is they say it and do it just to be cool.
Another disturbing thing I hear at school a lot is joking about weapons and violence, making fun about guns and knives and how it is so funny to talk about how people hurt each other. Kids say it for attention and they usually get it. But most of the time it isn’t good attention.
Suicide is also a huge thing students talk about with friends. A few days ago, I was on the bus and I overheard some classmates talking. A student was telling her friend about her brother breaking down a lot. Even in public places. I saw her eyes tearing up until she distracted herself, making them go away. She said her life is stupid and pathetic. Then she was telling the friend that her mom has told her she doesn’t love her and started tearing up again. That’s when they were making motions of hanging themselves. When I hear this it makes me want to cry.
When I got off the bus that day, I told my mom the whole story. She told me we needed to call someone who can help. A few weeks later my friend was doing way better and was going to a counselor every day at school. I’m glad she is getting help.
In life you hear a lot of bad things but you also hear plenty of good things. When I hear hurtful and mean words, I either walk away or tell them that what they are saying is not right. Or if something like the bus incident happens either you can help them out or talk to someone else whose job it is to help with that type of stuff.
Rockstar, BFF, Dude, Buddy. These are words I like to hear and say. There are many kids you love to be around and laugh with. Sometimes you don’t realize what you’re talking about and how strong your words are. Empathy isn’t just about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s also about being kind and showing your love one word at a time. A great book taught me this. It is very popular and I am sure a lot of people reading this blog have already read it. If you haven’t, I recommend you read it. It is called “Wonder” by Raquel J. Palacio. Like I said, it is an inspiring book that everyone needs to read. In this book, I saw that words really do matter either for bad or good, and even if you make mistakes with your words you can learn from them.
As Blaise Pascal said, “Kind words don’t cost much. Yet they accomplish much.”
Ty- 6th Grade Student
America, land of opportunity/land of the free has both captivated and inspired world travelers like me for many generations; be it past, present or future. It remains the most charitable country on the planet with empathetic hearts and pocketbooks freely open in giving to those who are less fortunate. It is just the American way and one of the main reasons why I LOVE THIS COUNTRY! Whether confronting natural disasters such as tornadoes or being generous with gofundme pages, the outpouring never ceases to amaze me.
Please believe me when I tell you, that this world has so many people who dwell in a permanent rut of desolation, despair, and hopelessness and we are so fortunate to live here in the US. The path of gratitude will always lead you back to the Path2Empathy as living the American Dream provides us all with so very much to be grateful for.
My Path2America began while growing up as a young girl in my homeland city of Dublin, Ireland. Mesmerized by the idea of living in the US someday, I faithfully watched American TV shows from the 1970s. My dad and I became besotted with shows like The Brady Bunch, The Waltons, Little House On The Prairie and the list goes on. We were both entranced with how affectionate the Yanks (that's what we call you guys in Europe...BTW) were so often professing their emotions with the words, “I love you”. Most Europeans are not so demonstrative with their feelings (except of course the countries of the Mediterranean) so it was refreshing for us Northern Europeans, to say the least.
For twelve years, from 1981 to 1993, I lived in six European countries while adjusting (not always successfully I might add) to the variety of cultures, customs, and inhabitants of each nation. In all of those separate locations, there was always kindness and open hearts to be found during my dark days or times of need, but I never lost my desire to live in the USA.
In October of 1993, along with my beloved future husband and a ninety-day visa, we drove to the INS Offices (now known as ICE) in southern California and began the 5-year process of becoming a US citizen. Once inside, the entire space was packed with long lines in every direction of immigrants like myself. I had never seen so many immigrants in one place! The paperwork, photos, forms, and a multitude of signings became a very lengthy process with many return visits back to the lines, the same people, in that familiar building. Patience became a virtue. Within a month or two, my Green Card arrived in the mail (although it is not green at all) and I was soon able to find work and happily blended into the American way of life.
I moved to Colorado Springs in the summer of 1995, and in order to continue the process I followed up with visits and more paperwork at the INS Office in Denver. In year four, I was advised to study 100 questions/answers on US History and Civics and did so in a diligent manner each and every day. A few months later, I was to be tested at the ICE Office while answering a total of 13 questions out of 100 and needed to get a minimum of seven correct. I was so nervous as the very serious-looking male official began asking the questions but knew my subject so well that I soon relaxed. To my relief, within a few short minutes, I had already accurately answered the very first seven questions so that there was no need to go further. Then, there was a brief oral and written exam to ensure that I could correctly comprehend/converse in English. The paperwork, lines, studying, and signing was finally over! Next to come was the date of the Swearing In Ceremony; we were given the date for a few months later and waited with sweet anticipation…
An official letter soon arrived in the mail stipulating that the ceremony would be taking place promptly at nine in the morning on Saturday, September 26th, 1998. Arriving about an hour early (just to be safe), I took my place in the second row along with about a hundred other future citizens from all corners of the world. As we found our seats, we were each handed a small American flag and a congratulatory word.
The ceremony soon began as we all began to answer in unison while asked whether we would pledge allegiance to the flag and defend our new native land. Each and every answer was a resounding “YES!” The national anthem played as we all proudly sang, “O say can you see, by the dawns early light...and the home of the BRAVE.” My home. We were pronounced to be US CITIZENS and the room erupted into applause while excited, joyful, hugs were given all around the room. We made it!!!
This day is precious to me, and with so much tension in the world we need to remember, we are all human, we all have hopes and dreams no matter the color of our skin or where we come from. This great country was founded on these principles: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” -Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
As I exited that building in September of 1998, my toddler son asked: “You American now Mommy?” With tears of joy streaming down my cheeks, I gratefully responded, “Yes honey, I SURE AM!!!”
Happy 4th of July everyone!
Ann Doolan-Fox- US Citizen, Author, Wife, Mother to Semi-Independent 21 Year-Old, and Cat Lover
Physical attractiveness without inner beauty is much like looking at a book without the ability to read it. I’ve learned beauty comes in all forms and it’s not something we attain; it’s something we have. So often we give up on beauty because of ridicule and mistreatment we experience, but my Path2Empathy has lead me to true inner beauty. As a singer and model, the shoes I wear now look much different than the shoes I wore as a young, insecure teenager. To look at me today you might think, wow, she has it all, but my dreams, like yours, were born out of much hardship.
There was no glamour the day I was diagnosed with two forms of Spinal Kyphosis. This condition is when the upper back has an outward curvature (or bump) that bends forward at the neck, much like elderly osteoporosis. For a middle school girl, my diagnosis meant not fitting in, feeling awkward, clumsy, insecure, and hugely self-conscious. Immediately, I was not allowed to participate in sports of any kind. To avoid being put in a very constricting back brace my day began at 6:00 A.M. with a rigorous schedule of physical therapy. I was also taken out of school 2-3 times a week for physical therapy in a hospital. My sessions were full of immense physical pain and at times tears of frustration when the curvature of my spine stayed the same.
I avoided the topic of my diagnosis, but still felt every rude comment or sneer about the way I looked. For a girl who doesn’t have the perfect body, whether it be weight, acne, or disfigurement, I can relate to how you feel. Looking in the mirror every day, and dreading what you see or looking for ways to hide it from the rest of the world. We retreat to avoid the comments and fade in social situations to protect ourselves. Adolescents is difficult for so many girls; my back made it even harder.
Even though I was in constant back pain and had migraines I turned to the one thing I could get lost in- music. My mother tells the story of before I could talk she would play a note on the piano and I would match it with perfect pitch. Grateful my spinal cord had no effect on my vocal cords, I immersed myself in singing, writing, and playing instruments. While my back proved to be a built-in burden, my music was built-in therapy. This was my way to feel beauty. But again, I found myself in the midst of more pain. Having a talent meant opening myself up for even more ridicule. Why is it when people see beauty they have to tear it down? Is is jealously? Fear? Whatever it was, it hurt. But I kept singing.
By 17, I had been able to perform at Carnegie Hall, solo all around New York City, and I traveled and performed in prestigious choirs around my home state and the United States. I received accolades in the world of music but ridicule and threats in the teenage world. I remember crying myself to sleep so many nights wondering, why? It didn't matter how nice I was, or what I did. I could not win with the majority of my peers. During this time I grew close to one friend who truly loved me, understood me, accepted me, and encouraged me. She never wavered in her faith in me and never flaked on our friendship. She saw my inner beauty. I’m proud to say we are still friends today doing life’s ups and downs together.
While those seasons were not easy I learned the value of true beauty and empathy. When I’m walking on the runway or performing in front of a crowd I’m reminded not to judge a book by it’s cover. For those of you who feel insecure, I know you. And those who feel lost, I understand you. Don’t give up. Each of you has beauty, creativity, and a gift you need to give the world. Don’t hide behind self-deprecation and self-doubt. We will never please everyone and people will still say hurtful things out of ignorance, but I’m going to keep on singing and loving beauty no matter where it comes from. A masterpiece is made with every stroke of the brush, light and dark, so when my looks and voice change, I will still surround myself with those who have always seen my inner beauty to remind me of what true beauty really is.
Katie Jae- Recording Artist, Model, Performer, Lover of People
For as long as I can remember, but certainly from the time my once infant son could shimmy himself into a seated position (without toppling over), I read books aloud to him. The vibrant illustrations and rhyming words of those early books provided me with an opportunity to teach the foundational elements of early literacy. Lacking a degree in early childhood education, I could rely on books to help teach my son the alphabet, the names of everyday objects, and the colors of the rainbow.
Now nearing the end of his tenure at our local elementary school, my son is eleven years old. Like many of his peers, he is a good reader, fully capable of reading books independently. He loved the Percy Jackson series and laughed out loud while reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
Several of my friends also have children nearing middle school and in their homes, parental reading aloud is no longer a daily ritual. I assume these friends have witnessed their children reading independently and perhaps felt it was time to retire the reading aloud tradition. But I would argue that choosing to read aloud to your older children has less to do with literacy, and everything to do with building character and empathy.
I probably spend an inordinate amount of time pondering what kind of kid I am raising. Is he kind? Does he find ways to make the world a better place? Is he accepting of those who are different from him? In short, is he an individual of character, capable of expressing empathy? I fully acknowledge that many adults would have a hard time answering these weighty questions. I also realize that character traits like leadership, self-confidence, and perseverance are difficult to teach.
As a parent, I wonder how my child will respond when confronted with hate, greed, or a seemingly insurmountable challenge. While I do my best to discuss these scenarios with him, I’m sure my lectures are lacking in the “excitement” department. But thanks to a plethora of literary characters ranging from Anne Frank to Frodo Baggins, my child can be faced with hatred, violence, bullying, and an unkind world and have concrete examples of how characters, real or imaginary, addressed these challenges. Through books, he can hear true-to-life examples of character. Through books, he can build an empathetic spirit.
I can’t say how my son will respond when his courage is tested; and I struggle with how to adequately teach the concept of courage. Therefore, I turn to books. Several months ago, I read aloud the Young Readers version of I am Malala. Through the pages of this nonfiction title, my son was transported to a part of the world where girls are banned from getting an education and people resort to deadly violence in order to silence those who oppose this tradition. Through this book, we had thoughtful discussions about gender inequality and oppressive groups – and together we talked about what it means to have courage.
Finding time to read aloud can be a challenge in our over-scheduled and busy world. In those instances, I turn to books on CD. For my family, the summer months provide ample opportunity for listening to books with captivating narratives while running mundane errands or driving to summer camp. Once the car starts, handheld devices are put away and we are transported on adventures set on the high seas (The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle), aboard a steam train traveling across Canada (The Boundless), or in 1930s rural America (Moon Over Manifest). Last summer, my son and I had the great pleasure of listening to the fiction title Wonder on CD. While driving the suburban streets, we experienced the joy and heartbreak of the main character, seen through the eyes of various narrators, as he struggled to navigate a new school with a facial difference. The book provided countless opportunities to discuss friendship, bullying, and acceptance.
As a parent, I am keenly aware that I cannot prepare my son for every difficult challenge that will befall him. I also fully expect him to have errors in judgment or forget what it means to have empathy. But in those instances, I hope he remembers the host of literary characters whose stories he both loved and hated, and that he recalls the lessons learned from those books. But more than anything, I hope he remembers that his mother cared enough about his character to read those books to him.
Nora Earnest- Mother, Empathy Teacher
Let’s be real, we all have our troubles, issues, burdens to bear. It is all in how we deal with them. Everyone has something that can send them over the edge, that we don’t handle in a healthy way. The addict is just like us, but they cope to the extreme. I am a mother, wife, daughter, and sister. For the privacy of my family I am not sharing my name, but I am one of millions. My story is not unique.
My brother is an addict; he is addicted to alcohol. He is an alcoholic and has been for the majority of his life. His addiction has affected every part of his life. He is one who handles every setback, every triumph, which are getting fewer and farther between, by getting drunk. Shoot, he handles day to day life by drinking. Oxford dictionary defines addiction as, “physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects.” He, my brother, one of the people closest to me, is my personal definition of addiction. His adverse effects have been divorce, arrest, job loss, alienation of friends and family members, physical withdrawal, and withdrawal seizures.
Our relationship has always had it’s ups and downs. The older we get and the more his addiction takes hold, the more downs we have. As is the case with many siblings, we can push each other's buttons like no one else can. But it seems that I am the one he often continues to turn to. I am the one, in the quiet of night when unable to sleep, who has written his obituary and eulogy over and over. I have even, in moments of weakness, wished he would die, so it would all be over. If I refuse contact, and he does die, alone, how do I live with that? How do I forgive myself?
One in 10 people, about 23.5 million people in the United States are addicted to either alcohol, drugs or both. That’s about the populations of Florida and Connecticut combined. But this is about only one of those 23.5 million. Really, it’s about one, his enabler. Me.
I don’t know if there was one major trauma in his life that lead him to alcohol, none that I am aware of. With alcoholism being an issue on both sides of our family, I believe that the greatest factor leading him to becoming an alcoholic was being genetically predisposed, along with early exposure and use. Early, as in early teens. He saw it as cool, fun, it lowered his inhibitions and allowed him to feel more like himself among his peers that he viewed as the ‘cool kids.’ It made him cool, too.
The definition of empathy that is used by Path2Empathy is, “to walk in another’s shoes to experience how they live, feel, and be.” Through my brother’s addiction I have tried to walk in his shoes, to have and feel empathy for and with him. However while walking this walk, my empathy has often turned to enabling. I have tried to shift my empathy for this situation by seeing it through my mother’s eyes. The eyes of his #1 champion, the eyes of a mother, the eyes that look at him and still see her precious little boy. When looking at it through the lens of a parent, my parent, who has also lost a sibling to the ravages of alcohol, my empathy has become even stronger enabling. How do I change it? How do I have empathy for the addict as his sister and my mother’s daughter without enabling?
Oxford dictionary defines enabling as, “giving someone or something the authority or means by which to do something.” By this definition, when I help him pay rent, I am freeing up money for him to continue to drink, but my empathy says I am keeping him from becoming homeless, and keeping my family from wondering where he is, if he is warm, if he is safe, if he has eaten. The balance between the two is a fine and dangerous line. A line I struggle to find and stick to.
When I refuse to help him, or in my weak moments when I push back, his reactions are often volatile (not violent), manipulative, and hurtful. My brain knows that it’s the addiction and not the person talking, but my heart says otherwise. My heart asks, “Who are you? Where’s my brother? And, how can you say such things?” My gut says to cut my losses and leave, cut ties, save myself the pain and frustration. As a parent, I know I need to shield my kids from his addiction, but how? How do I shield them from an uncle who lives less than 5 miles away? An uncle who has never done anything negatively to them. An uncle who makes their mom cry behind closed doors. Addiction sucks; it just plain sucks.
Sometimes the only way I can begin to try to empathize with him is to put myself in the place of the hungry, the starving. The hungry man craves what can save him, nourish him, keep him alive. The addict has that same level of hunger, of craving, but for what will ultimately kill him. As I walk this path with my brother I am constantly finding, crossing, and losing that line between empathy and enabling. It is never easy. The thing that addiction has taught me is that wanting what is best for him and wanting to make sure that he is taken care of are not always the same thing. My path with my brother is far from over, and even though I can recognize right from wrong, and empathizing from enabling, I know that there will be steps in my future path that cross that line, too much enabling and not enough empathy. But I am trying. And I am not alone, because I know that there are 23.5 million addicts out there, and an equal number of families and supporters just like us; people trying their best to make sense of addiction- to care without giving in, to help without hurting, and to heal without losing.
In 1969 the Hollies released a song titled “He Ain’t Heavy...He’s My Brother” This is my song for him.
It is a goal of many to have a career in the sports world. As an athletic trainer, I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by talented and gifted athletes willing to endure the daily rigors of their sport. After 20 years of working with high level athletes, it has become obvious that very few athletes get to the top of their sport from pure genetics alone. The natural talent must be matched with the dedication to perfect their skill set. But, it also must be combined with the intangibles that rarely get emphasized in today’s sports world. Through my experiences, it has become more and more evident that the attributes that separate the elite athletes from the rest are more mental than physical. I believe one of those overlooked attributes is the ability to show empathy towards your teammates when things don’t go as planned. And, very rarely in sports do things go as planned.
As a sports medicine professional in the collegiate setting, I get to see athletes at the top of their game. But, I have also been on the field with an athlete who just felt his knee explode or his limbs go completely numb. I have walked an athlete through the tunnel and into the athletic training room and told him the news that he fears the most. I have been the sole person responsible for telling an athlete that his season is likely over. It is during these times that even the strongest athletes are brought to uncontrollable emotion as they come to realize their identity has just been lost. It is often felt that their thousands of hours of blood, sweat, and tears have now been wasted. The stages of grief begin. It’s a humbling environment and one that often occurs simultaneously with the sounds of the crowd cheering for the athlete who has just replaced them. It is obvious that the games and their teammates will continue to move on without them as their team implements the clichéd “next guy up” mentality. It is an environment that commonly screams for empathy, but it can very often be completely void of any signs of it.
The best coaches, teammates, and medical professionals who I have worked with all demonstrate the innate ability to show empathy. This skill is rarely taught, hard to develop, and challenging to implement. However, it is my belief that it is a clinical skill that should be taught in the classroom for all health care professions and must also be taught and reinforced amongst coaches and athletes. There is significant research that shows that sincere empathy yields positive clinical results in medicine and sports. Expressed empathy by team members can produce a calming effect in athletes that creates a sense of belonging and purpose. It allows them to redirect positive energy and give them the confidence needed to overcome injury by encouraging greater effort in the rehabilitation process. Teams that show empathy to their teammates create a healthy environment for everyone to work and grow. This is true whether it is the healthy superstar, the backup or role player, or the athlete who can no longer physically perform due to injury or illness. Listening, giving positive reinforcement, being all-inclusive with team activities, and slowly building back self-confidence can all lead to the successful return of a broken athlete. The athletes and teams that are able to handle their setbacks in a positive way always seem to find ways in which to win. It is common in the sports community for coaches and teams to obsess over the thousands of details that may or may not affect winning. Empathy towards team and teammates seems like an obvious, easy, and cost effective way of providing an environment to do so. And best of all, empathy addresses the athlete as a person. So, regardless of whether the injured athlete ever regains his ability to compete at the same level again...there will always be a day in which he can’t perform at that level. In an age where these men and women are looked at as superhuman, empathy reminds us all they are still human.
Mark Peters- NCAA Athletic Trainer, Athlete, Husband, Father
My father, Courtney A. Metzger, was a self-made man. I feel deep love, admiration, and respect for him. He earned much success and many awards, but what I remember most about him was the way he lived his life. He cared about people and about their worries, their needs, and their concerns. He remained humble throughout his life. His family, his spiritual life, his community, and those less fortunate were the things that were important to him.
Dad never forgot where he came from and how difficult life could be. His father died when he was fourteen years old. It was a challenging time for his mother and him. There was little money so he got a paper route. When he was paid, he brought all the money home and gave it to his mother. He dropped out of school to help, but in spite of that, he became a very prominent aerospace engineer at Wright- Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.* What he gained, he earned by hard work.
He and my mother raised eight children. Early in their marriage, they bought a small farm because Dad loved animals and wanted to raise his family in the country. He gave us the opportunity to receive an education because he valued education. His work ethic taught all of us how to be successful. He served diligently on the local school board for twenty-five years with the intent of improving the schools in our neighborhood.
Dad daily felt concern for anyone less fortunate. He worried about the homeless and those who didn't have decent homes. That is why he served on the housing board for HUD for many years.
What I loved most about my Dad was how well he cared for his mother and Great-Gran, (my mother's mother). Great-Gran lived for twenty-five years after Grandpa died. Dad made her a part of our family. He helped her with her money and was responsible for it growing and supporting her until she died at age ninety-five. Great-Gran confided in me several times about how good Dad was to her, bringing her coffee and the newspaper every morning, asking her how she felt, and did she need anything. He valued her!
Dad accomplished so much in his life. He was an aerospace engineer, a farmer, a businessman, a community leader, an inventor, and a caring, giving, thoughtful husband, father, and grandfather. He always thought of the needs of others. He was very special. Dad taught his family, not by words but by actions, how important it is to live a life filled with empathy for others.
Claire Block- Daughter, Mother, Grandmother
There are a couple of details we wanted to point out from Claire’s beautiful blog. First, she submitted her blog handwritten (see picture above). In an age of email, text, shares, and faxes her delivery was a breath of fresh air for us! We loved seeing her words and thoughts in such a personal way. Thank you Claire, your pages will go down in P2E history!
Second, Claire’s father, Courtney A. Metzger, was a pioneer for empathy. He took his gifts as an inventor and put them to practical use. In 1967, he submitted a report/proposal of his invention: (see below) a device that could turn human urine into drinking water in space. He even spent a week in a simulation space capsule to aid in the research. Talk about putting yourself in another’s shoes!! We couldn’t help but point this out to our readers. And as Claire said it best, ”Dad taught his family, not by words but by actions, how important it is to live a life filled with empathy for others.”
Verb: forgive- to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake.
Could there be a harder verb in the English language?
Forgiveness has always been a difficult thing for me. My mind wants to keep bringing up the offenses, flaws, or mistakes I see in others. Yet, with all of my offenses, flaws, and Everest of mistakes, I continually hope those I have wounded choose forgiveness.
Forgiveness...the holidays, a new year, a fresh beginning? How do we get there?
I was reminded by my friend Beth of Charles Dickens “The Christmas Carol” and its parallel to empathy and forgiveness. Ebenezer Scrooge: a cheap, grouchy, despicable man who seemed hell bent on making life miserable for anyone around him. Yet we see Scrooge’s transformation, after being visited by the ghosts that soften his heart and thrust him toward those he meant to harm. The characters he had offended did in fact embrace him, but what about us, the reader? The characters in the book did not see Scrooge’s ghostly night, but we did. We witnessed a young, rejected, and wounded Ebenezer looking for love and ultimately choosing to deny his feelings and turn to greed, the one thing he could control. Empathy and forgiveness seem to walk hand in hand in this story. By putting ourselves in Scrooge's shoes we saw glimpses of his life that lead him to being the man he had become. Although the characters he had wounded welcomed him with open arms in the end, for our benefit we saw Ebenezer's story so we could forgive him.
Think for a moment who you would label as an Ebenezer in your life. Maybe it’s not even a person, it could be a group of people, a political party, a religious group, or even an entire culture you are holding in unforgiveness. With the virtue of empathy, could you look into the past, present, and future of their story? What would you see? And more importantly, would it be easier to forgive them?
I’m not advocating that forgiveness equals trust or justice. Trust is earned. Justice is given. Both can be essential in the healing process. But trust and justice are not things we can control. Empathy and forgiveness are choices we can make, no matter who and what situation we face. You might be thinking; If I forgive someone do I have to be friends? No. If I forgive a group of people do I have to agree with them? No. If I forgive does it make what they did alright? No.
Forgiveness is a choice. It doesn’t right a wrong or change what happened. Forgiveness is for you and for me to decide in order to set us free from bitterness and hatred. Hopefully, by choosing empathy and forgiveness, those we have wounded will choose the same for us. It’s the quietest loudest choice we can ever make for our hearts.
In addition, we probably find it easy to point to the Ebenezer’s in our lives, but what if through some self-reflection we find we have been someone else’s Ebenezer?
From P2E Crew member, Alexi Seabourn: “Mr. Scrooge had lost his empathy, not just for others but for himself. To find his place in the world again he had to walk in his own shoes, examine his own path in order to decide how he wanted to move forward. At times we feel so committed to a direction that we don't take the time to reexamine our own path and make sure that it is headed in a healthy direction. Empathy and forgiveness feel like words about understanding other people, but in their truest sense they are about understanding ourselves as well. Ebenezer, by walking in his own shoes, chooses to change his path and right the wrongs. We can't control anyone else; it is entirely possible that our Ebenezer will not change paths any time soon. But empathy allows us not just to walk in another's shoes- but to reflect walking in our own.”
If forgiveness and self-reflection seems out of your reach let empathy (to walk in another’s shoes so to experience how they live, feel, and be) help you take one step toward forgiving another and yourself. It could change your holiday experience, and propel you toward the personal growth you’ve been looking for.
As said by Ghandi- “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”
We at P2E wish you the warmest thoughts this December and January.
Jennicca Mabe- P2E Founder, Forgiven, Forgiver
Living in the country for most of my childhood meant working with animals and facing the realities of an animal’s life. I must have been six or seven the first time I helped my father slaughter the chickens and turkeys we had spent the summer raising. I always felt a little sad and once we staged a protest to save one of the turkeys we loved. But the realities were that if we didn’t eat the chickens and turkeys, we didn’t have much to eat. Even though our protest hadn’t worked, we didn’t hesitate to enjoy the meal. The other animals we had, goats, horses, geese, cats and dogs served more of a functional purpose and although we really loved having them, we didn’t consider a part of the family.
Around my middle school years, we moved out of the country and sold our animals. We kept a couple of cats and dogs to have as pets. I liked having the cats and dogs but never found myself extremely emotionally attached to the dogs. When I was in 9th grade, one of our cats was hit by a car and had to be put down. We were all sad, but I was used to animals dying and I got over it as soon as we got another cat. As I grew up, went to college and started my career I encountered people who were extremely distraught over having lost a pet. I thought it was ridiculous that someone would be so torn up over the loss of a pet. I recall coworkers taking the day off because of this and I had not only a lack of compassion, but a bit of disdain for them. I couldn’t fathom the idea of grieving due to the loss of a pet.
For the past ten to twelve years, my children have wanted pets. We have had the occasional beta fish and we had a turtle. The beta fish each had their own life story and when they died, the kids were sad and we moved on to the next fish. My children always asked for a dog or a cat and the answer was always no. Three years ago, we went to the pet store to purchase some food for the little turtle we had at home. It happened to be the day that the local animal shelter held pet adoptions. When I walked around the corner, I saw the most beautiful, black Great Dane. He was about 18 months old and was the sweetest dog. Up to this point, I generally avoided dogs and didn’t understand how or why people loved their dogs.
I immediately felt connected to this dog and by the end of the day; we had signed the adoption forms. We welcomed Polo with open arms into our life. This was the beginning of the journey of raising this amazing dog that followed me everywhere and played with me every day. When I had to travel out of town for work, he would get depressed and only ate minimally until I returned home. I spent a lot of time working from home and became accustomed to having Polo by my side during the day. Polo would often interrupt my work because he wanted to play and I would take several breaks to play tug-of-war. The 140lb dog gave me a workout whenever we would play. Whenever we sat down to watch TV, he would try to sit on our laps and often took our spots on the couch. On a few occasions, he even tried to kick the kids out of their beds and take over.
One of our favorite games was for the boys to keep the dog in one of the rooms with the door closed while I hid in another part of the house. When I had secured the best hiding spot, I would yell to the boys that I was ready and they would open the door. Polo would immediately race down the hall searching for me. He would go immediately to the last place he had found me and when I wasn’t there, he would race through the house searching for me. I usually had to give him a hint by making a noise or two. Then, he would barrel toward me and jump all over me. He made a great addition to our family and even my wife who does not like animals grew to enjoy having him around.
During the summer of 2015, we noticed that Polo had some lumps under his chin and I took him to the vet. After several tests, the vet told me that he had lymphoma and that he only had several months to live. I was devastated. I was sad for him, for my kids and for myself. I remember going home to tell my boys that he was going to die. Diego, my youngest, ran to his room and hid under his bed upon hearing the bad news. It was a very sad next few months. We decided that we would enjoy the last months with him and when he began to suffer, we would take him to the vet to have him put down.
By October, his health had deteriorated and it was time to put him down. The boys decided that they did not want to go to the vet with me so I would have to do it alone. That morning, everyone had left to school and my wife had gone to work. I was alone with Polo and had a little time before his morning appointment. I decided to play hide and go seek one last time and to play one last time. He chased me through the house, jumped all over me as much as he could and there was a flood of emotions that I had not expected.
By the time I arrived at the vet, I felt overcome with sadness and guilt. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I felt so guilty for ending his life even though there was nothing more I could do for him. I could hardly speak to the staff at the vet clinic because I sat on the verge of losing control of my emotions at every moment. I knew I didn’t have it in me to witness the event so I turned him over to the vet and said my goodbyes to my sweet, loving playmate. When I got to my car, safely out of public view, I began to weep. I wept and began to tremble and the pain was horrible. I had never in my life mourned for an animal in this manner. In that moment, I became one of those for whom I had lacked compassion and was filled with empathy for anyone who had ever loved and lost their pet.
Animals see us the way we want to be seen. They never judge and are always ready for the next round of hide and seek. I learned a lot from the playful, unconditional love of Polo and I am grateful for my time with him, he forever changed me.
Jared Montoya- Professor, Pet Lover
When I got my first job out of college, I was working as a counselor to elderly adults with schizophrenia. By this time in my life, I had obsessively embraced differences in others and enjoyed an existence like a rainbow. I shook my head when I would read social media statuses written by my peers that glorified their own “us” in their world and vilified whatever “them” they spoke of. One such status was written by a person who never left my hometown, who spoke about how all the “drug-addict crazies were taking advantage of our governmental resources”. This person argued that those people need to “snap out of it, grow up and stop mooching off of my taxes.” The same day, one of the residents at the place I worked, who was surviving on government assistance, did not come down to take her medications. I went to her apartment and she was sitting in soiled underwear on her bed and staring at her dining room table without blinking. I asked her what was going on and she told me with great detail about what I couldn’t see. To her, she was the guardian of a small population of people who lived under her table. Recently, the city bus in her world had changed its schedule, and today it never came. This world had a bad rainstorm and she was worried about them, so she vowed not to leave them until they were safe on the bus. This was why she didn’t come for her medications and why she couldn’t go to her own bathroom.
She knew I couldn’t see the same world as her, but I knew that by me pointing out reality, she would become distressed and/or angry with me for challenging her own reality. Imagine if you were the only one who saw the sky as red and everyone insisted that it was blue. Instead of trying to convince her that she was having another delusion, I sat on her bed with her and looked at the table for a few minutes in silence. I asked her if it was “ok” for me to sit with her and she told me that was “ok” and that I was also helping the people feel safe. I asked her to tell me about the world under her table, and she took me on a journey full of details and plot lines.
After a while, I reminded her of why it was important to take her medications on time. I could have easily brought her medications to her room for her, but I knew that by doing that it would only help short-term. Then, I pulled out my cell phone and told her that I knew someone who could help her town. I fake-dialed on my phone and told her I had gotten through with the dispatch from the bus company. She looked at me and away from the table for the first time. I filed a fake-complaint and told her that the dispatcher informed me that the bus would be there in two minutes. I put my phone down and we counted down the seconds. The bus came and left, but it was still late…4 minutes and 20 seconds. I told her that we would write a letter that I would “mail” to complain about the bus schedule. She agreed that when the bus timetable started getting messy again in the future, she would come to me or to one of the other residents so we could make a call.
That night as I sat on her bed, it wasn’t her world or my world. It was her world that I became part of. I didn’t see the people, but I imagined them there under the table. I felt stress as I thought about the pressure she must feel every day thinking she is responsible for their safety. I thought about how she didn’t always see the people under the table when she was having a healthy spell, but always lived with the knowledge that they can and will come back…and there was nothing she could do about it. I thought about the sadness she had for knowing that she was mentally ill and that most of the world saw her as dangerous, dirty, outcast, and misunderstood. My heart broke as I thought about the intelligence she possessed and the college degree she had and could never use. It broke for the family and friends who put her away in a facility so they could distance themselves to continue their own lives. It broke for her dreams that died the day she tried to take her own life 30 years prior. Others like her, or the individuals with intellectual disabilities, I went on to work with, challenge me to try to imagine that my life could be very different with an extra chromosome or a chemical imbalance. By the luck of the draw, I didn’t need to know those struggles first hand.
Empathy is about much more than trying to see the world from another's perspective. For me, empathy is a contract I have with the world to live as an “us” and leave behind a concept of “them”. We need each other. We need disabled people just as much as “they” need “us”, if only to remind us that there are always two sides to an ever flipping coin. Entering into a empathy contract is not easy. It means being challenged every day to find ways to open our minds to other points of view. It means asking millions of questions, listening, and lifelong education about what it means to be alive for each person, no matter how much that person rubs us the wrong way. Empathy is something that needs to be extended before you learn the hard way that you may need empathy yourself one day. It is teaching the next generation to think independently, to love outside of their comfort zone, and to keep fighting for the collective “us”. It is a heart-breaking journey to feel other’s struggles right along with them. But, it’s also a beautiful journey to experience those magical moments when people come together to do the right thing. Empathy includes a special kind of joy that is hard-earned and fluid between others like “us”.
Currently, I am traveling around the world. I know some people think I ask too many questions. I also know that some are grateful that I am asking questions and not basing my judgements upon external influences. It can be fun when you can look past the poverty to find a poet, or to find someone completely different from you who has the same favorite movie. At my core, I want to know humanity. I want to know what works and what is broken in our world. Sometimes I am overwhelmed with so much love for everyone that I feel like I am going to burst. Other times, I find myself weeping because I can’t fix what’s broken. In the words of the individuals with intellectual disabilities I worked with for many years, they don’t want “sympathy”, or people to feel bad for them. They want “empathy”. I know I can’t fix the world, but I am trying to find little ways to empower those I see with needs to be able to fix themselves. After all, “they” want to be an “us” as well.
Katy Armstrong- Making Empathy Contracts Around the World
My Wife Has Breast Cancer… Again.
We are 4 days out from the first infusion of chemotherapy drugs. Stacey is running a low-grade fever. Her body is at war. She’s on the couch sleeping. Right now, it feels like our whole existence is a big mess.
August 1st was a cruel day. That day Stacey received a call from her breast surgeon with the diagnosis; the cancer has returned – Stage 1. Aren’t we lucky to have caught it so early? Yes…so lucky. Just a few hours earlier we had received the news that our friend had passed away after his 7-year battle with cancer. I was at home with our children and sat them down to tell them what had happened to our friend. To pray with them and for all of our friends who were grieving in that moment. To pray for Stacey who was also grieving. Stacey didn’t tell me of her diagnosis until she got home and my first thought was for our kids. Great – we just had a conversation about cancer and death, how am I going to handle this news?
This story started a little more than 6 years ago when Stacey was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a scary time, we had no idea what to expect. Stacey was in her mid 30s. Our two children were just starting in elementary school. Stacey elected to have a double mastectomy and reconstruction. The doctors said the chances of recurrence were extremely small. Probability statistics are not very meaningful when it turns out YOU are the 1 in 200.
Now, I’m dealing with all of this again, but differently. I’m older and we’ve covered a lot of ground in the last 6 years. There’s a continuum of people with loving concern and support on one end and fear and required assurance on the other. Our network of friends and family scattered all along that continuum. What does Stacey need? What do we need?
For two normally private people who have a hard time receiving from others – this is a difficult time. I know I need friends in my life, and I want to have stronger relationships and more intimate friends. But how do I balance setting good boundaries now and being open to receiving good care? The truth is we have a lot of needs (hard for me to even type out those words let alone publish them for the world to read or say them out loud). But when I think of asking for help I think back to one experience I had abroad...
After graduating high school, I was accepted into the Rotary Club International’s exchange program to spend a year in France. As Spring Break of that year approached it was clear that the Rotary Club was unsure what to do with me. All of my host families had made plans and the Rotarians wanted me to have a good week. The head of the local chapter approached me with an idea. “Would you like to go skiing?” I’d go alone, all expenses paid to the small village of L'Argentière-la-Bessée, where my ski guide would pick me up and take me to the mountain hostel where I would join his other clients for a week of guided backcountry skiing (ski de randonée).
I think he barely finished the words “skiing” before I said YES!!! Spring Break came and as I boarded the train my host mother asked me if I had enough money? Oh yeah, I said. I had a whopping 450 Francs in my pocket – at that time about the equivalent of $50. I spent a few dollars during the train ride to get a snack. When I arrived in the Alps it was dumping snow. Could it be any more perfect?
We stopped to have drinks after lunch each day, and my fellow skiers suggested that we each take turns buying a round of coffee for the group. Of course, I wanted to participate and quickly calculated that would take about $30 of what remained of my $50. I started to get nervous that something would happen and I would be stuck without money. I knew I would forego eating on the train ride home.
The week was amazing, but I had managed on the bare minimum, skiing during the day and reading in the sitting room in the evenings, happily falling exhausted into my spartan bunk every night. I had only brought one pair of wool ski socks with me on this trip, and had worn them daily. I also had not thought to bring soap or shampoo with me. So each night I took a hot shower and tried to rinse the stink off from skiing. But by this time I was starting to smell bad, and my socks were the worst of it. I would hang them every evening to dry out and be ready to go the next day. This last night of the trip, I hung them in my cubby where I was keeping my stuff and crawled into my upper bunk in the co-ed dormitory of the hostel. Everyone was in bed and the lights were out when I heard a few of the women start to chatter. “What is that smell!?”
“Oh pew – something stinks!”
One of the women accused a guy in a voice loud enough to hear, “It’s that guy from Paris”.
Then he said back, “No, it’s the American”… I was caught. I lay as still as I could in my bed, mortified, feeling like there was no escape. Maybe if I just pretended to be asleep.
The next morning I “slept in” staying under the sheet of my bunk until I was sure everyone had left the hostel. As I gathered my things to leave, I noticed that the man I had been skiing with left his body wash on top of my cubby (so I couldn’t miss it). I grabbed the bottle and hit the shower, my first with soap in over a week. It felt good to be genuinely clean and not just rinsed off. I got lucky that someone noticed and decided to help.
Why did I tell you about my ski vacation in the French Alps? Because I’ve realized in the last year, my life is a lot like that story. I am incredibly lucky – my children are healthy, I love my house, and I love my work. I have everything I need to survive and I have people who love me, but my wife is sick and from time to time I may need to just ask for help.
Like in my story, most of the time I choose to buy a round of drinks for my friends and skip the soap. It’s OK, how can I possibly complain? Why didn’t I tell my host mom that I only had $50? Why didn’t I ask my skiing companions if I could borrow some soap? Why didn’t I let anybody know that I didn’t have any money left to buy something to eat on the train ride home?
I’m trying not to live that way anymore. I’m trying to be more vulnerable and hopefully more interconnected. I plan to let people know when I need some soap. And even if no one responds, it’s OK because I’m still skiing in the Alps! But at least I won’t be suffering any longer because of my own silence and self-abuse. Walking in my own smelly shoes for a week taught me that being vulnerable is better than looking like I have it all under control. It’s easier to express empathy for those around us if we know where they are at. Unless we can be vulnerable, it’s hard to know what is needed, smelly socks and all.