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.