Developing Empathy

Thursday, 03 Nov 2022

There was an interesting article written recently by Rabbi Sacks. He tells the story of a young American living in Japan studying aikido who was sitting in a rather deserted train carriage. At one of the stations a man staggered in shouting. He was dirty, drunk and aggressive. He began cursing at people and lunged at a woman holding a baby. The blow hit her as she fell lopsidedly. She and others moved to the other end of the carriage, an action which seemed to inflame the drunk even more. The drunk grabbed a metallic object and readied himself for a fight. 

However, before he could do so, a small elderly man in his seventies, dressed in a kimono shouted “hey” to the drunk in a friendly manner. “Come here and talk to me”. The drunk came over, as if in a trance. “Why should I talk to you?” he said. “What have you been drinking?” asked the old man. “Sake,” he said, “and it’s none of your business!” “Oh that’s wonderful,” said the old man. “You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree …”

As he continued talking, gradually the drunk’s face began to soften and his fists slowly unclenched. “Yes,” he said, “I love persimmons too.” “And I’m sure,” said the old man, smiling, “you have a wonderful wife.” “No,” replied the drunk. “My wife died.” Gently, he began to sob. “I don’t got no wife. I don’t got no home. I don’t got no job. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks.

As the train arrived at the student’s stop and he was leaving the train, he heard the old man sighing sympathetically, “My, my. This is a difficult predicament indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.” In the last glimpse he saw of them, the drunk was sitting with his head in the old man’s lap. The man was softly stroking his hair. What he had sought to achieve by muscle, the old man had achieved with kind words.

A story like this illustrates the power of empathy, of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, entering into their feelings, and of acting in such a way as to let them know that they are understood, that they are heard, that they matter.

Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (Making Caring Common Project) suggests we can develop empathy in children by doing the following:

1.    Empathize with your children and model empathy for others
2.    Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations
3.    Provide opportunities for children to practice empathy. Children are born with the capacity for empathy, but it needs to be nurtured throughout their lives.
4.    Expand your child’s circle of concern. We often talk about empathy as a quantity. For example, we speak of children as having a lot of, or a little empathy, or as lacking empathy entirely. Yet the issue often isn’t whether children can empathize or how much empathy they have. It is who they have empathy for.
5.    Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively

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