Our paths to empathy are forged by individual experiences and the people we encounter along the way. For me, the path has been a long and winding one, paved with successes and failures continue to teach me the value of empathy as well as self-discovery. All my life, I've been captivated by the stories of others and compelled to make connections. As a young child I remember looking out into the darkness at all the lights glimmering from people's homes, and wondering who lived in them. What are their lives like? Are they in love? Are they happy? Sad? Do they like to eat pizza? What are their dreams?
What are their stories?
This curiosity helps define me; inspires me to go and experience.
My first lessons on empathy came from my mom, St. Claire (my siblings and I call her that. She is the nicest person you will ever meet!) She taught me that we shouldn't judge others because we can never really know what's going in someone else's life. We can't assume that, just because someone we interact with is in a bad mood, we are the cause of it! St. Claire always encouraged me to give others a chance. And every time I was wise enough to take her advice, it worked! It is such a powerful lesson, and one I constantly remind myself of as an adult. Thanks, Mom, for that golden nugget! ;-)
My next lessons on empathy came from joining the Peace Corps. Since middle school, I had yearned to live in different cultures and experience their languages, customs, traditions, holidays... get a real taste of other's lives. Later, these dreams began coming true. When I first arrived in Moldova as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was most worried about the lack of running water and Western amenities like electricity. (My village had limited electricity and no running water.) A few of the teachers in the village spoke a little bit of English, but I was the first Western my village had ever encountered.
As months passed, the lack of running water and electricity were easy to adjust to. It was missing my home and family, and figuring out how to navigate the culture that was difficult. When I started Peace Corps I had such idealist views. I wanted to "help" people and change the world. The funny thing is that my experience ended up helping me. I had the mindset (I am embarrassed about this) that I was here to teach the Moldovan people 'the American Way', and that our way of doing things was the only way.
As I spent more time with my students, fellow teachers, neighbors, host family, and villagers, I listened. I watched. I lived as they did, and in doing so realized how strong, ingenious, generous, wise, and talented the Moldovan people were. I realized there were so many ways to do things that I was humbled. I soon learned to appreciative all the lessons the Moldovans were teaching me; from gratitude and independence, to finding happiness without all the things so many of us in the Western world think we need. I saw life from a different perspective and it changed me.
It was beautiful, and reminded me that in the end, we may look different or have different experiences or possessions, but we still want the same basic things in life. It was a powerful lesson, and one that still motivates me to travel the world, meeting all kinds of people and collecting their stories!
From my adventures in the Peace Corps I went on to work and travel to all 7 continents and many countries. I still long to go new places and meet new people. It reminds me that we are more alike than different. It reminds me to be grateful for this big blue marble we call home. It reminds me that by making connections with people all over the world, we make the world smaller.
After years of living and traveling abroad with no permanent address to call my own, I craved a mailbox, a garden (still working on this), and being close to my mom. So, I settled in Palmer Lake, Colorado and started teaching at Lewis Palmer School District. I felt a little bad about this choice at first because I had always dreamed of working in urban, diversified schools like Cabrini Green, or remote rural schools, or on an Indian reservation... I couldn't have picked anything further from that when I chose Lewis Palmer!
I felt like I wasn't needed, or couldn't make a difference. How quickly that changed as I started teaching and learning that everyone has struggles and things that they go through, regardless of their zip code or socioeconomic status. All kids need good teachers and adults they count on, whether it is in Monument , Colorado or inner city Chicago, Illinois. As a teacher, I constantly meet inspiring students and families, each going through their own stories and struggles.
Raising a child is also teaching me a lot about empathy. I had my daughter at an "advanced" age (it is like dead man walking in medical terms on the maternity ward, even though I wasn't that old!) I have been so humbled by this journey through parenthood. It truly is the toughest job. I was always helpful to friends and family and parents of my students who had kids, but I truly never understood. Now having experienced it, I wish I would have been more helpful and understanding. I worried and felt a bit isolated for the first few years (even though I had a great support network). I felt depressed, and can be pretty hard on myself to this day. Parenting has really helped me remember not to judge, but rather to try and put myself in others' shoes. I am so thankful for this experience, and trying not to worry so much and be kinder to others!
I feel like I have had such rich experiences, wise mentors, and wonderful people surrounding me to help me become a better and more empathic person. Even with all these great experiences, however, I still struggle with empathy day to day. I am constantly challenged with being overly critical of people, and sometimes judge books by their covers. In these moments I have to revisit the wise old advice from St. Claire, and it still holds true as an adult.
I always try to install empathy, tolerance, respect, curiosity, and love into my classroom. It is my secret agenda. So, when Jennicca Mabe came up with this brilliant idea, I couldn't jump fast enough to be a part of this beautiful movement. The Path2Empathy project and the ladies I am working with have also been great teachers to me. I'm deeply thankful for this experience, and eternally grateful to all of my teachers along the way.
-Carrie Block, P2E Crew