My path to empathy has had many stops along the way but I believe the most important steps are yet to come. I’ve had some great experiences in my life and met incredible people who have helped me on this journey, but I’m still walking the path; still learning, practicing, making mistakes, and starting again. I know that my life and my character would be vastly different without each and every moment I have experienced, but there are two elements that have been a part of my journey from the start and are, as a result, my biggest influence and most respected teachers of empathy: my mother and my books.
I credit my mother with my successes because none of them would be possible without her. From my earliest years, she taught me understanding, acceptance, leadership, and friendship. Whether through Girl Scouts or lending a hand to a struggling parent, my mother showed me with her actions what it means to be there for someone else. Through her example, I learned to volunteer my help, befriend everyone, and respect differences. My mother rarely mentioned it but I know now that the empathy she gave to others was not always returned in kind. My mother is white and my father is Indian, a union that was not always met with acceptance and approval. Her children, on whom she lavished love and attention, were often mistaken as someone else’s or adoptees because we did not “look” like her. These moments were hurtful and even at times heart-breaking, but they did not harden her heart or close her off. Instead, they renewed her efforts to ensure her own children grew up feeling loved, valued, and accepted. As a result, we have grown up to be adults who value those traits and can share them with others.
More recently I watched her take care of her aging mother. As my grandmother got progressively worse and more difficult to care for, I watched my mother struggle and push herself to walk in my grandmother’s shoes. Visits were draining and difficult but my mother always went. She would return exhausted but when I suggested she could skip a visit she would refuse, insisting that as hard as it was, she knew my grandmother needed the company. As my grandmother’s dementia worsened and her awareness declined, my mother still decorated my grandmother’s room, brought her quilts and presents, and kept her connected with family members. Through it all she recognized my grandmother’s struggle and consistently put herself in my grandmother’s shoes, doing the things she knew my grandmother needed and deserved. It takes effort and willingness to empathize with another but it takes true courage and strength to turn that empathy into action. I’m not sure that I would have been strong enough to do as my mother did, but I am hopeful that her example has pushed me closer to that ability.
For me, some of the most significant stops on my path to empathy have occurred not from my own personal relationships, but from my experiences while reading. Characters from Atticus Finch to Mr. Darcy to Percy Jackson have rewarded me with the opportunity to see and experience the world from someone else’s perspective. In those moments their past and present replace my own. The triumphs of each character become my own celebrations and each obstacle or failure, my own defeat. The privilege of these encounters is that I am able to emerge renewed and changed, my worldview broadened, and my understanding of the human experience expanded. The lessons I learn carry through to my personal relationships and everyday interactions so that I can more easily understand the individuals, groups, and society around me. I think at the base of every interaction is a desire to be understood, and empathy, no matter how we have learned it, is the key to achieving that. I am fortunate that I was raised with access to books with characters who could teach and guide me, and as I continue on my journey I know I’ll be moved along the path to empathy by the new faces I meet beneath each cover.
I’m incredibly grateful for all of the experiences in my life that have helped me on my personal path to empathy. I know that I have so much more to learn and I am thankful that my mother and my books have given me a strong foundation and a continuous source of fuel for the journey. I’m not there yet, but I will get there, one step at a time.
Alexi Seabourn- Daughter, Teacher, P2E Crew