A Word Appeared
In early December of 1989, while working as a “visiting teacher” for schools throughout the Northeastern United States, I had an unusual experience with a group of 5th grade students. It was a snowy morning in Portland, Maine, and I was teaching a lesson I called “Real life Conversations” in The Longfellow Elementary School, for the Portland City School District. At one point, I asked the students why others in school were often treated unfairly, and as I turned to the blackboard poised to record their answers, an image of a blank picture frame appeared on the board. Looking closely inside the frame, a word was showing itself to me; capitalized in bold letters I saw…
I drew a blank frame and wrote the word EMPATHY on the inside exactly as I was “seeing” it. I stood there quietly for a moment and then said “Please silently read the word I have written inside the empty frame.” After a few moments of silence, I had a student read the word aloud for the class and then I continued… “Empathy is being able to see inside someone else’s “picture”, understanding what they are going through and making caring choices based on what you see.” Prior to that moment, I had never contemplated teaching the word empathy to a group of students and I had no idea where this vision and its corresponding reflections were coming from.
Since that day, empathy has become my touchstone in everything I do. I have created lessons, given talks, conducted workshops, and been interviewed numerous times on the subject of empathy. Often, when working with others on this topic, it feels as if on that early winter’s day in 1989, in that small elementary school built in the 1930’s, I was given a glimpse into my life’s work: to teach how empathy in practice brings to life one of life’s greatest lessons: To treat others the way you would like to be treated.
In 2005, I wrote a book for schools called Teaching Empathy. Although I targeted the book primarily for teachers, since its release, many non-educators who have expressed their fascination that empathy can be learned and practiced as a way of living, have contacted me. I’ve had numerous spirited conversations on empathy, often charged with emotion and wonder. I have come away from these experiences with the perception that all people need to be conscious of how to manifest empathy in their own lives. It’s a paradox really, because although empathy seems to be about awareness for others, it’s really about having empathy for yourself, finding what brings you joy and meaning in your life, believing that you are here to express your uniqueness to the world, and opening up to what that expression might be.
In my work as a teacher, I have focused exclusively upon both children and the adults who work with them as part of my process, as part of my life’s work. And now, as I open up to expanding this work outside of the school community, I offer this blog to you as an expression of what I have learned. It is my hope that by focusing on the heartfelt practice of empathy, you will experience how joyful life can be each day within each moment. It really is an ancient concept, that we need each other if we are to survive. Technology in spite of all its magic, instant communication and informational capability, cannot provide the most basic emotional need; real-life human connection. Perhaps this is why there is an increasing number of people who feel cut off or dismembered from the human experience. Empathy is a journey of remembering to the human heart. It is a core heart skill and cutting edge practice for reconnection and self-discovery.
In this blog, I will tell you the story of my heart’s journey as an educator and parent and how along the way, I have come to realize that for schools, empathy is a necessary consciousness that is so often forgotten. In the many moments of bumping up against others, it is far too easy to label, judge, blame and dismiss. For some this is sport, for others it is habit, and for others it is a knee jerk reaction to someone who they see as getting in their way of success and happiness.