How We See Empathy

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

“Please don’t yell my name and poke me. Can you see that I am having a conversation with someone else?”

“We don’t call people ‘stupid.’ They have a right to their opinion just like you.”

My daily life consists of phrases like this coming out my mouth every few minutes. In children like my students, empathy is still being developed in their brain. Why do we need empathy though? After all, glory be, it seems as though children are not the worst offenders.

As you know, empathy is our understanding of another person’s condition. When someone is sick, we console them because we have felt illness too. Or when, say, millions of people flee their home country from violence. How does the empathy of other countries’ citizens come into play when those refugees are welcomed or not welcomed?

Empathy is a different animal in the adult world. There are always things for which empathy is easy, like illness and other physical discomforts. However, things become murky in a world where our personal gain is at stake: business, competition, collecting resources, survival, or belief systems.

Forbes published an article on empathy in business, asking the question of whether empathy is “indulgence or invaluable?”

President Cabrera [President of George Mason University] often challenges graduating MBA students to capture the essence of a business with a simple question: What is a business? To his dismay, most students respond that a business is a function where money goes in and more money comes out. Cabrera sternly corrects them. His answer: “At its very heart, a business is the beauty of bringing together people and things to make the community better off—these are the businesses we admire. Empathy is the one tool that makes it all happen.” (…)

The question remains, what is next? Will we embrace the potential of empathy as a foundational element for better business, team and individual performance, or will we continue to look at it as a mere indulgence, a soft skill, a “nice-to-have” attribute?

When my students are not showing empathy towards one another, I pause all activities and teach the emotional lesson now at hand. One of the organizations mentioned in the Forbes article, Ashoka, is a social entrepreneur network that focuses on programs and companies for social change. One of these is Start Empathy, which published this article about the connection between music education and a student’s capacity for empathy. The original research can be found here, but below is a snippet:

Researchers at the University of Cambridge observed 28 girls and 24 boys, all between the ages of 8 and 11, from four different schools in the United Kingdom with a similar socioeconomic makeup.

Roughly half of these children were randomly assigned to a special music program that the researchers designed, where children met once a week in small groups for an entire school year to play games that encourage interaction, imitation, and “mindreading” through music. (…)

The other half of the students also participated in weekly games that encouraged interaction and imitation, but their games were without music, using techniques like storytelling and drama instead.

Before and after participating in either of the two groups, all children in the study took an array of tests to measure their “emotional empathy,” or their ability to experience another’s emotional state as their own. (…)

The results show that after the school year ended, empathy increased significantly among children in the music group but not in the group that played non-musical games. (…)

The increased empathy among children in the music group suggests that interacting through music may hone our general ability to share the psychological states of others.

Will music education be the key to help both children and adults develop their sense of empathy? I don’t know, probably not. Yes, we all like music. We all listen to music. We are surrounded by music in elevators, shopping malls, public transit. However, the consumption of music is not the point. It’s the doing, the performing, the making.

Solution. Politicians, businessmen: begin every meeting, summit, or United Nations gathering with group music-making.

Weird? Yes! But you think part of me is not being serious?

“Stay safe, and be peaceful to one another.”

~ Mark Wheat

The Weightlessness of Being Yourself

…passing through.  Like the cars and pedestrians along the sidewalk, which were scarce, though, because of the cold air.  Never mind the cold air, I still took my phone out of my pocket and searched for the person I wanted — needed — to talk to.  It was not a “smart” phone, so my thumbs grew numb as I clicked hundreds of times to write one word.


It was not written in the interest of a romantic encounter, but it had to do with romance anyways.  She was the only one I could talk to, because she knew already how to do it.  Or at least that it could be done, happily or otherwise.

When I opened the apartment door, a small gathering of people was inside watching a movie, including her.  I wanted to sneak away to our coffee without telling anyone or being asked questions.  How?  No matter, I was determined and could not take the plunge if I stepped backward on the diving board of my insecurity.  Same ol’ insecurity.

Once the movie finished, I spoke my text aloud.  “Coffee.”  If there was a half-question mark, I would use it.  I said that word in a way that sounded like a question, but functioned like a command.  “Sure.”  One of the roommates asked, “you’re getting coffee? Right now?”  She replied, “I guess so.”  I remained silent, holding onto my sleeves as I put on my jacket.  It was about 10:00 PM.

I babbled nonsense as we walked to the 21-hour restaurant.  Its name, Hard Times, was all at once a hyperbole and understatement.  But oh, the coffee, ’twas flowing and ’twas cheap.  She walked along and listened.  I babbled through the cigarette smoke outside the door, and babbled in between my words to the cashier, who probably strained the coffee out of his dreadlocks earlier that day.  I babbled our path to the creamer, past the free clothing bin, and to a rocky table where we sat.  My goal accomplished — sitting and drinking coffee — I finally stopped babbling and got to the point.

Being bi.

I flooded her with questions.  She flooded me with questions right back, though with the answer intertwined.  I was left either nodding or sighing or both.  We both knew the answers before I asked the questions.   “What would my parents think?”  “What do you think that they would think?”  “If you date someone of the other gender, will you tell them?”  “Well, wouldn’t you want to know if you were them?”

So flowed the coffee of our conversation for the next four hours.  I probably had a car at that point, because I remember driving her back home so she wouldn’t have to bike or ride the bus.  It was not terribly cold anymore, despite the late hour.  Just as I pulled up on the side of the road across the street from the house that she shared with half a dozen strangers, we both noticed an incredible moon sitting in the sky.

“Can we walk through the park to get a better view of the moon?”  “Yes, please.”

We got out of the car and, like 6-year-olds, ran to the playground and climbed on the equipment.  The moon was our goal, but the pettiness of a playground was worth a detour in our adventure.  I tried to balance without hands on low-lying monkey bars.  The river of silver wood chips, very coarse and real and hard on the feet, was far below for the time being.  From the wooden castle, we leaped off of the highest tower and cruised through shadowy woodlands to a large open field, which was grey-green in the light of the moon.  The clouds floated beneath it and obstructed our view.  We ducked and dodged to catch a better glimpse, as though the tiny angle we gained by turning our necks would have any effect on heaven.  Tired of our jaunt, we fell to the ground and gazed from our backs.

It would be hard to recall what we talked about.  The stars, the planets, how small we are, how small our problems are, how you can’t see any color when the sun has set, how you can never get perfectly comfortable when you lay on the ground.  A heavy object had lifted from me, gone up into the dark matter where delusions get stuck.  I couldn’t feel the silver ground anymore and I was floating around in outer space among stars and planets and rocks and shit like that, and everything was so amazing and I wanted to stay there and feel burnt by sunspots.

We sat up and ate a picnic of the thoughts that were in between us.  Talking to siblings, talking to friends, hoping that eventually we will have done enough talking about this silly subject that the talking would no longer be necessary.  What phrase is best?  What context does it come out of?  The ground was lumpy, and I noticed a silver wood chip under my thigh.  Maybe the best context is no context at all, because nothing will prepare them anyways.  Yeah, probably not.

We stood, brushed off the silver, and walked back across the field.  To any onlookers, it would have seemed as though we were simply…


Creativity: A Ghost Story

I read many a ghost story as a youngster. In my elementary school’s library, I migrated towards the supernatural and scoured through the haunted. They would end with just a touch of mystery; story lines that never found closure.

To this day, no one enters the old house… All he heard was the faint scratching fade down the street… The figures are still said to be seen on the property…

And, on I read. Each story ended as though the final sentence on the last page was incomplete. The voices were never silenced in the hallways, and so the nail marks will reappear on the door, but if the white lady is left wandering the beach, then the black dog continues to bay, and eventually the dancing child will find his playmate, though not if the servant hides… while the door can never stop… an innocent traveler can still hear… she will always be screaming… when the moon is out, they… but until he returns… and… to this day… while… still… yet…

They pulled and pulled and pulled me along. Would I find out if the man in the suit found happiness? Let’s read on, and maybe the next story will offer some satisfaction. But the family hasn’t made peace with the gnome in the attic. Could they still? We can’t stop now. The sound of the ghost train is still heard. Could I, one day, hear it for myself?

Leading up to writing this post, I was reading through a few lists of documented mysteries and unsolved crimes on Listverse; a pastime of mine when I have such wonderful nights of no work or school the next morning. As I read, I found myself reflecting on these childhood fascinations by an old and familiar feeling: a fuzzy sensitivity on the back of my neck, a slowing and shallowing of my breath, a heightened listening. This was accompanied by occasional head-twitches—you might call them “fearful glances”—to the corners of my apartment that lay behind me. Was I, at my age, becoming…becoming…spooked?

Just to make sure that this couldn’t have been happening, that it was in no way possible for my neck hairs to be rising, I left the website and pursued Facebook and listening to music. There, I thought. I’m not scared. It’s not even crossing my mind. Not one iota. No big deal. I’ll just turn my music up. But it’s because I like it. I like my music. I want it louder. It’s an Argentinian band.

La Parca estuvo cerca,
Me miraba con cariño,
Asomó por la ventana y sonrió.

“The Grim Reaper was close,
She was looking at me caringly,
She leaned in the window and smiled.”

Damn you, neck hairs.

For most of my life, “to this very day,” I attribute this sensitivity to an active imagination, and this imagination to my creativity. It came from the focused energy that I put into my personal protection from the wolf in my closet (yes, that’s what was in my closet. And a man in a top hat was outside the front door. And a black cat was on top of my parent’s dresser.). If my own memories and work have taught me anything about kids, it is that they have the capacities for energetic, unmitigated imaginations that could send the kettle whistling.

I believe that we adults find it difficult to be as freely creative as a child. We find something—anything—to inhibit the flow of ideas that electrifies us from mind to fingertips. Barriers are set in place to try and reroute the flow which are euphemized with words like “logic,” “realism,” and “discipline.”

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.

— Carl Jung

We as adults have the gift of reason, in that we understand when an idea is impossible due to such things as the laws of gravity and mechanical motion. What we consider to be our “logic” should not hinder the creative process, but be the cardinal advantage to seeing it through. We should not only be free enough to welcome the idea, but wise enough to bring it to creation.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

— Pablo Picasso

Now, I’ll leave it to your imagination as to how I unabashedly equate this same idea to the failure of argumentative governments and beloved religions. Perhaps they ought to freely and uninhibitedly welcome ideas, welcome friends, welcome enemies, welcome peace, welcome questions, welcome answers. If not, then perhaps their neck hairs ought to be standing.

I leave you with a fragment of my imaginative 6-year-old self. This is a song I listened to from the narrow bench seat in the back of an old blue Ford truck, a recording by Caryl P. Weiss. Hopefully it won’t give you the spooks…unless…

Can’t we disagree on something?

Permit me to let out a small bit of frustration.

I have begun to understand the educational advantage of disagreement. Too many times have I seen what could develop into a healthy discussion based on two viewpoints turn into a battle of egos that inflate like mosquito bites being scratched by the fingers of close-mindedness. In a school environment, this is dangerous; more dangerous than bad behavior.

I consider this situation to be serious because a disagreement between people can make them forget that they had any similarities in the first place. And then this can happen:

Bullying victim (credit: iStock)

Or this:

Muslims protest publication of political cartoons in a Danish newspaper, Sept. 2005 (credit: The Age).

I understand that some opinions are irrational. I understand that some reactions to these opinions are unnecessary. I believe that better communication at the outset will help prevent these problems. Expressing your disagreement is healthy, when it’s done in a healthy way. That’s the first step. The next step is to accept that disagreement, without taking it personally. The final step is to make an honest effort to create change.

When we say what’s on our mind, knowing that it won’t be taken well, there’s that moment of tension before the response. We want to squeeze our eyes closed and brace for impact. This is the fear of the unknown, which we all have in different contexts. Physiologist Walter Cannon called it the Fight-or-Flight Response. The prey flees when the predator attacks. What are we prey to? What are we preying on? Stating a disagreement can incite a fight response from the receiver of the disagreement (defending themselves, closing off to compromise), and a flight response in the person with the opinion (the squinting eyes, backing down, etc.). “For example,” says Wikipedia, “the fight response may be manifested in angry, argumentative behavior, and the flight response may be manifested through social withdrawal, substance abuse, and even television viewing.”

Let’s bring ourselves back to the classroom. Students often deal with unhealthy disagreements daily in ways that are out of a teacher’s control. However, the hours a student is in class are very impactful, and have repercussions in their social life (I’m not referring to specific statistics or studies I’ve read, but if you’ve had a personal experience that’s been different, do tell!). The classroom, like the rest of our world, should be a safe place where we can share diverse ideas without fear of persecution. Isn’t that way the Pilgrims came over here?

Once we do that, we can do more of this:

(Via Idea Hive.)

Please voice your healthy disagreements in the comment section below.

i gcróilí an bháis

I have had this blog post drafted for a while, but never published it until I read McNickerson’s touching post on the same topic.

I have not thought much about what death actually is. Is  it sad or happy? Is it personal or public? Does it matter?

The Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos embodies a view on death that I enjoy. In a nutshell, they believe that when they die, they will spend the rest of eternity doing what they loved in life. The holiday of the Day of the Dead celebrates the souls of dead ancestors returning to their families. It is not a fear of death but an optimism that motivates them to celebrate it.

Death, as much of my family has understood, is a motif in our lives, a quiet rippling river. I make that comparison because it is sometimes louder and sometimes softer, but always moving. I have always been accustomed to funerals in the family; a great uncle or aunt, a cousin many times removed, a wife, a husband, the sister of the woman whose daughter was the one at the reunion with that sweater, a grandmother. The discrimination from Europeans, the Potato Famine, then the Irish Revolution against the backdrop of World War I, then on into the Irish Civil War, the Great Depression, then World War II, all leading to an island with a rift in its heart called a border. Still, like the grubby, grey potatoes in our pantries, the Irish weren’t rankled by the rain.

My extended family was gathering at a restaurant to talk and relax after the memorial service of a family member. My father noticed the widow stepping inside carrying a large box and struggling to keep the doors open, so he jumped up and offered assistance. She gladly accepted his help and pushed the box into his hands.

“Oh thank you! But hold it from the bottom. Dick’s in there.”

We ate a hearty meal, we were served black Russians, we toasted, then began our goodbye that lasted as long as the meal. No one was crying or sitting silently. They were chatting, eating, and laughing. Laughing loud “machine-gun” laughs.

Later in the month, we returned again for a golf tournament in his memory. More hearty food, more toasts, and more goodbyes that would have sent you far over par.

What does that mean to me, the third-generation mainlander whose immediate family is small and who is watching the Irish roots sifting into the genealogical melting pot around him? How will I put this part of me to use?

I suppose posing such questions to myself is in contradiction to the same mentality I’m trying to describe. Death could happen at any time. If I die thinking about it, I wouldn’t have died thinking about something more interesting. Like a good joke. Or what’s for dinner.

This is me when I die. Be careful where you set that urn...