Monday, December 21, 2009

My parents, empathy, and one Christmas morning

I grew up with parents who were extremely empathetic-- both toward others and toward us, my sisters, brother and me. The Christmas season reminds me of a wonderful example of that.

As the oldest of the four kids, I was the first to learn the truth about Santa Claus. I felt very important and grown-up to be keeping this secret with my parents, and wanted to be a part of making the Santa magic for my younger siblings. I had the idea that "Santa" should leave a trail of presents from the fireplace to the tree-- an idea I eagerly shared with my parents. They agreed to do it.

I got up Christmas morning, all excited to see the results of my collaboration with my parents. When I walked into the living room, I was surprised to see ALL the presents spread out between the fireplace and the tree, and none under the tree. I realized that my parents had misunderstood my idea, which had been to have most of the presents under the tree, and just a thin trail of presents from the fireplace to the tree.

I thought it looked really bad. And I was extremely touched to see it so. Because it told me that my parents valued me more than anything, certainly more than how something looked-- even something as important as a once a year magical Christmas event. I figured they had to have thought it looked stupid, too, when they laid it out, but they did it anyway. For me.

They had such empathy for me (I felt it even if I didn't know the word then) that they understood how excited and grown-up I felt to be in on the secret, and they honored that. What a beautiful gift, one that I have treasured to this day.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Life in a Family without Empathy

How difficult is it to live with family members who are unable to feel empathy for you or each other?

I've had a series of interesting e-mails from a woman who recently discovered the empathy symbol and the website. She tells of the daily anguish of living just such a life. She suggested that we add "families" to the motto on the bookmarks and magnets, which says: "Empathy-- the first step to peace in our schools, communities, nations, world."

I thought her experience should be shared, and she gave me her permission to do so here, even though she felt some trepidation. She believes that the lack of empathy in her family members stems from undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. She is aware that this might be controversial in the Asperger community. But looking on Wikipedia, I found that Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who identified the syndrome in 1944, "described children in his practice who lacked nonverbal communication skills, demonstrated limited empathy with their peers, and were physically clumsy." Saying that at least some people who have Asperger Syndrome have a difficult time feeling empathy for others is not a judgment, and it doesn't mean that all such individuals cannot learn to feel and understand how things are for another person.

I think it's important to listen to her experience with an open mind and heart, and really hear, and feel, what she shares:

"As you know, empathy is a very personal issue for me. ... living with decades of no empathy from your spouse, daughter and other extended family members can be deadly. I believe my sister suicided in 2006 in part from the lack of empathy she experienced over 25 years with her husband-probably undiagnosed AS. She didn't think she could live with him anymore, but she also didn't think she could live without him. It has taken me 32 years to realize my husband probably has AS. It took me 52 years to realize my parents and sisters probably also have/had it. What took me even longer was to realize the impact on ME from living with non-empathetic people for all of my life! I have found a whole world of Asperger Spouses who struggle with depression, anxiety, physical illnesses from decades of neglecting themselves and caring for others and/or stuffing emotions and feelings which family members will not allow expression of. ...I attend a monthly Asperger Spouse Support, or ASS, group.

...Prior to finding your website, my favorite website was that of Maxine Aston who has described "Cassandra Affective Deprivation Disorder" experienced by the spouses of those with Asperger's. Unlike Autism, which is usually more obvious, people don't believe they have AS, or that your spouse might have AS. Thus, you speak the truth that there's something wrong, but nobody believes you. It is truly a curse. For 10 months my family has denied the possibility they have AS, just increasing my despair after a brief glimmer of hope that I finally understood what I was dealing with. We have finally found a competent health psychologist experienced with AS and are working towards a diagnosis, but much slower than I'd like.

If you are ever interested in learning more from my perspective, or that of other spouses, I'd be willing to set something up. Again, my bottom line recommendation is to add the word "families", because the lack of empathy IS deadly within families, just as much as it is in other aspects of our society. The reality is that if people don't learn empathy within their families, or during K-12 schooling, it will be much more difficult to learn it other places. Since AS did not exist as a diagnosis until 1994, there are many, many undiagnosed adults in our world who are not eligible for the educational services young students receive today. Our health plan does not cover AS as it is not "curable", even though it has impacted my health severely. But health insurance companies don't look at the health impact on others from your disability. There's a whole can of worms out there in relationship to this issue.

Thanks again for the symbol, and the affirmation and hope it brings to me (and others) that someone is acknowledging the importance of something we lack on a daily basis within our families."

Having grown up in a family that was awash in empathy, I can only imagine her pain; I thank her for sharing her story with me, and now with you.

And yes, we will be adding the word "families" to the empathy motto soon.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Babies are sociopaths

We all start life as sociopaths.

Babies don't much care that mommy is dead tired from getting up every two hours to feed them. Their cries say it all: "Feed me. Change me. Hold me. Meet my needs."

Fortunately, we are also hardwired from the beginning to be interested in other human beings, to gain pleasure from seeing a face we recognize, from hearing other human voices. When a toddler reaches out from her high chair to offer her mother a bite of the cookie she is enjoying, wishing Mommy to experience the pleasure she has, we are certainly seeing the beginning of empathy.

In fact, I believe we are hardwired as humans to become empathetic, that caring about others and wanting to understand others is a survival trait for the human species. We are a social species, and we have succeeded spectacularly because of this.

But, there are aberrant individuals in any species. In humans, a severe lack of empathy leads to a sociopathic personality--a person who has no interest in the experiences or feelings of any other human being but himself. What are the worst human beings in our history but sociopaths, able to commit mass atrocities because they are unable to feel the pain they are causing others, unable to even perceive others as full human beings like themselves?

And of course, empathy runs on a continuum, like most things. It's not either/or: either you're empathetic or you're a sociopath. Most of us fall somewhere between Mother Teresa and Hitler.

We all know people who just don't seem all that interested in anyone but themselves. This person, when you tell him you just had something bad happen to you (let's say you found out your mother has cancer), responds with his own story of someone he knows who had cancer, or a story about an illness his own mother had, rather than responding to you and your experience. Sure, sometimes people do this as an attempt to let you know that they understand where you're coming from. But you know the kind of person I mean: whatever you say, their response starts with the word "I". They're not quite up to the mid-point on the empathy scale.

On the other hand, we all know someone who seems genuinely interested in hearing about us and our feelings and experiences. This person's response tends to be a question about you and what you said: "Oh my, I am so sorry to hear that. What's your next step with your mother? How's she taking this? How're you holding up?" These people really share your joys and your sorrows, and they make the world a better place.

Yes, we all start life as sociopaths. Fortunately, most of us naturally learn to become empathetic to others. Helping all children to increase their empathy for other people, including people not in their own social group (ethnicity, religion, culture, etc.), would be a huge boost in moving our human species to a higher level of existence. This is especially true for children who have not themselves experienced an empathetic response--those children who are abused, who are unloved. Teach a child empathy, show a child empathy, and we will all be better for it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Henry Louis Gates incident

The Henry Louis Gates incident is a situation crying out for an empathetic response. You have to ask yourself, if you are not a person of color, how would it feel to be automatically regarded suspiciously by the police, even in your own home? How would it feel to know that you can be stopped by the police while driving, or followed by a clerk in a store, at any time, simply because you have dark skin? I imagine it would feel awful to have that possibility hanging in the background of your everyday life, and you just don't know when those racist suspicions might suddenly emerge to threaten you. Until what happened to Henry Louis Gates isn't possible anymore in the U.S., we have not made the racial progress we think we have.

Although the words that were spoken by the participants at President Obama's "beer summit" were not made public, I truly hope that Police Sgt. James Crowley came away from that with increased empathy for what it feels like to be a law-abiding person of color on the receiving end of a law officer's suspicions. Once again, President Obama has shown how important empathy is in creating a more peaceful and reasonable world.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Help Wanted: Supreme Court Justice

Wanted: Supreme Court Justice. Must be empathetic and understanding.

President Obama is going to appoint a replacement for David Souter, and his number one criterion for a candidate is empathy! When have you ever heard that before? Obama says he's looking for someone "who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory... It is also about how our laws affect the daily reality of people's lives."

This is brilliant--basic and revolutionary at the same time. Just think if every job description included "empathy" as a requirement. CEO's would empathize with their lowliest employees; teachers would empathize with their students; doctors would empathize with their patients... Of course, this is what good teachers, doctors and even CEO's do anyway.

Look at Chauncey Veatch, 2002 National Teacher of the Year. He talks about how he felt it was important to be fluent in Spanish and to attend local events, in order to relate to and understand where his students are coming from. This is from the Teacher of the Year Website:

One of Veatch's migrant students, Luiz Mendoza, describes how well Veatch can relate to such students, saying, "I work with my family around Bakersfield until November. But Mr. Veatch saved me a place in his class and spent hours with me helping me to catch up. He does this for all of his migrant students."
Veatch himself says, "Most of my students come from families of modest economic means, but their parents have the same dreams for them as parents everywhere. To dream is to be filled with hope. I know this because I see the faces of hope daily."

As for doctors? Consider the studies by Dr. Mohammadreza Hojat of Thomas Jefferson University. This is from the Abstract of his recent article in The Journal of Health and Human Services Administration: "Empathy in the context of clinical care can lead to positive patient outcomes including greater patient satisfaction and compliance... and lower rate of medical errors. Also, health professionals' well-being is associated with higher empathy."

So bravo to President Obama for recognizing the importance of having empathy for one's fellow human beings, in all life circumstances. If all job descriptions included the word "empathy", what a different--and better--world it would be!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Children's Culture Connection

I just read a newspaper article about an amazing organization that is fostering empathy between children of different cultures and countries in wonderful ways. It's called Children's Culture Connection. I spent the last hour on the website reading about the kids in countries from Iraq to Haiti to India, kids in Africa, Asian, South America with whom this organization is working. The pictures are wonderful--kids under the most difficult of circumstances smiling, playing, and showing that kids are kids.

Check it out at:

This group has a fabulous educational program which connects real kids in the U.S. with real kids in other countries.
The article I just read in the Star Tribune:

told about 14-year-olds in Northfield, Minnesota becoming pen pals--and friends--with teenagers in Iraq. These kids discovered what they have in common--more than they thought--and also what each other's lives are like in ways that are different. What is it really like to live in a country that is at war?

As the director of CCC, Dina Fesler, says in the article, "These groups, on both sides, aren't jaded yet. Theyr'e willing to put themselves out there. So many Amierican kids think we're at war with Iraq because they're all Muslim terrorists, ans so many Iraqi kids are taught to hate Americans. Now we can have kids teaching other kids the truth."

The article concludes with the reflection of one teen from Northfield: "I like to think I won't be so quick to judge other people in the future. It opened my eyes that there are different ways of interacting."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

empathy in kids

It was about 10 years ago, when I was volunteering in my son's 6th grade classroom. It was Ramadan, and one of the girls in his class was wearing a headscarf. I overheard her telling the children about how she had to fast, that she would not be able to eat anything until sundown. Her classmates were asking her all about it. How could she go all day without eating? Why did she have to do that? It was wonderful, because the kids were so nonjudgmental, just genuinely interested and curious. And she responded to their questions with openness.

I believe children are very capable of empathy toward others because they are so used to so many things being new to them in this world. Every day, they learn something new... about life, about nature, about other people, about math, about so many things. That's the nature of being a child. Learning about other people, in an uncritical way, is a natural experience for children.

Even young children can learn to be empathetic. In fact, it is a critical human skill. Preschoolers first express their empathy for other children in the context of others getting hurt. Even toddlers will cry in sympathy when another toddler cries. And preschoolers will try to cheer their friends up, in their own way. This usually means doing a pratfall to make the other child laugh. Or it can mean just giving their friend a big hug. The child is not hurt himself, but he can understand the experience and take the other person's viewpoint.

If adults could be as open as children are to the differences as well as to the common humanity of all people, the world would be a lot better off.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

being homeless

I got to experience a little bit of empathy for what it feels like to be homeless recently. My church is part of a group of churches that participate in a program called "Families Moving Forward." Families who have recently become homeless can use this program, which offers them a place to stay as well as help in finding permanent housing, jobs if they need it, or whatever they need to get back on their feet. The churches offer the "place to stay" component of the program, and each church takes turns hosting for a week, every few months. We set up the basement for them--each Sunday School room becomes a bedroom for a family; the large room where we have church dinners becomes their dining room, and in the corner is their "living room", with chairs and sofas gathered around a TV and DVD player. Church members donate food, cook the dinners and breakfasts, stay overnight, and generally help out. I help out with the childcare, spending time with the children in the evening, bringing over Playdough ( a big hit), games and books. I've done this twice. The first time, in the fall, there were 3 or 4 families. This time there were more, and quite a few more small children and babies. A sign of the economic times, no doubt.

So I had to think, as I was playing with these young children while their parents sat in the corner watching TV, what must it be like to have to move every week to a new place to live? What must it be like to have almost no privacy, and to have to make conversations and get to know strangers constantly, as each new group of volunteers at each church sits down to dinner with you? The first time I did this, the parents paid no attention to me and the other volunteers as we played with their children. They just stared at the TV, and talked and laughed with each other. And at first, I felt like this was strange--until I put myself in their place. Then I thought of how emotionally wearing it would be to have to be friendly with a new set of strangers night after night, when you're already worn out from the day and all your troubles. Plus, you're indebted to these people for their help, and I would think you might not feel like trying to relate to someone who is going home to their nice warm house and all their possessions when they're done volunteering.

The children both times have been wonderful--open, friendly, and delighted to play with the things I bring and with me. So, how is it for them? What is it like to have a parade of strangers come into their lives, new ones each day, people who are kind and friendly and then disappear? I sense that they're used to quickly sizing people up and making friends in the moment. Of course, children are very present-oriented, so perhaps it is not as strange or difficult for them as it is for adults. Still, the transiency of their lives must be very hard for them. The kids talked about their preschool class, so they do have the constant of school and teachers, and of course their parents and siblings are their rock to hold onto as everything else changes from day to day.

As I said, this is only a small glimmer of empathy I experienced for the homeless; I do not pretend to have any true understanding of what it would be like without having experienced it myself. Still, in these times when people are losing their homes due to foreclosures all over the place, it is important to pay attention to the real people who are living out the stories we hear on the news.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


It 's good to experience being in the minority sometimes, if you are usually of the majority.

My childhood experience was as majority as you can get--a WASP in Minnesota in the '50's and '60's. Now Minnesota is much more diverse, of course. But in my elementary and junior high school years in a small town on Lake Minnetonka, about 10 miles west of Minneapolis, everyone was like me. So I didn't even think about it. I just took that way of living and experiencing the world for granted.

Even now, although I live in a more diverse neighborhood, I still usually experience life through the lens of being "the norm". So, it was an interesting experience a few years ago when I was at a meeting of our neighborhood steering committee with 7 other women. It was right before Christmas. Our host put out snacks, including large pretzel sticks dipped in white chocolate and drizzled with dark chocolate lines to resemble birch trees. I thought they looked lovely. I was about to comment that they would be fun to make for Christmas gifts, when it occurred to me that I was the only non-Jewish person in the group, and so that remark would be irrelevant to everyone else. I kept it to myself.

But I was taken aback by that experience. I wondered, what must it be like to be a minority person (whether of religion, culture, race, sexual orientation or whatever) living in a majority unlike yourself. Do you keep your thoughts and experiences to yourself when they are not shared by the people you're with?

It was an interesting and valuable experience, and I hope I hold onto it.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A co-worker shares

I am a teacher. Various in-service opportunities are offered at our school. One day, a co-worker in the administration area of our school offered a diversity in-service workshop on herself--her life as a lesbian. I can't imagine what courage it took for her to stand up in front of 30 of her co-workers and tell about what it was like to grow up knowing she was different from her friends or anyone she knew...wondering what it meant that she dreamed about girls instead of boys...never even hearing the words "homosexual" or "lesbian" and not knowing others felt the same way she did. She shared her pain, her confusion, her feelings as a child and a teenage. I was so grateful to her for being willing to share this with all of us; certainly, if anyone who was in that audience that day now learns that a niece is a lesbian, or a son is gay, they will have a beginning of an understanding of what that might be like, thanks to this gift from our brave co-worker.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obama our brother

On Tuesday, January 20th, we were all brothers and sisters together as Barack Obama became our president. Everywhere, the tears of joy and liberation flowed--from the Washington Mall to the Mall of America, on faces of every color, from young eyes and old. When elderly African-Americans spoke on TV cameras of their memories of racial segregation and hatred, their voices choking with the overwhelming emotion of what this moment meant to them, I, a white middle-aged woman, cried with them. When the people of Kenya danced and celebrated, we danced with them in our American living rooms. We were all priveleged to share this moment, a powerful empathetic bond rarely experienced simultaneously by such a large mass of humanity.

I remember being at the Xcel Center in St. Paul in June 2008, when Barck Obama claimed the Democratic nomination for the presidency. We waited for hours, in lines that snaked around block after block of downtown St. Paul--and the camaraderie was joyous, fantastic. Then, my husband, myself and our 18-year-old son made it into the Xcel Center just as Obama took the stage, to wild cheering. What I remember most is looking around at the crowd we were sitting with way up in the rafters, surrounded by mostly black families, and so many of them crying with joy, justice finally coming for them. I felt so privileged to be able to share this profoundly emotional moment with them.

Barack Obama has ushered in the true new century, finally. We have hope now, that the 21st Century will be marked by the flowering of empathy and respect for all of our brothers and sisters around this planet.