At this year’s U.S. Democratic National Party Convention, empathy took centre stage as former vice-president Joe Biden accepted his party’s nomination to be its candidate for president of the United States. Each of his endorsers touted Biden’s “ability to connect with what someone else is feeling and pointed to that characteristic as making him uniquely qualified to lead the country, particularly during a time of crisis like the coronavirus pandemic” (Merica, 2020, para 2). Words like honesty, humility, empathy, and grace were heard from many of the convention speakers, including U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and former President Barack Obama, both of whom know something about achieving change during a crisis.
While introducing my first-year fall 2018 EDUC 1199 Teaching and Learning (Part One) students to various perspectives on the year one classroom observation field experience, we heard Ms. Bridget Russo, a retired principal in the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board say something that I have shared with each of my classes since. The question posed to the panel was this: “What advice do you have for first-year Concurrent Education students as they embark on their first field experience?” Ms. Russo said, “show empathy.” She reflected that of all the things that students bring to their field experience, the most important is empathy. With it, so much can be accomplished. Without it, nearly nothing can be achieved.
These two events, while vastly different, point to the importance of empathy in our time. But what is empathy and why is it so important?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as
“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Sometimes there can be confusion between empathy and compassion. Compassion refers broadly to sympathetic understanding, while empathy is the ability to relate to another person’s pain as if one has experienced that pain themselves. It involves seeing their world, appreciating them as human beings, communicating understanding, and understanding feelings (Sahota and Lewitz, 2014).
So, in the case of the crises currently facing the U.S., empathy would be the ability to relate to being a victim of the coronavirus or racial inequality. In the case of teacher candidates attending their first field experience, empathy would be the ability to connect with students in or near the classroom setting, some of whom are experiencing significant challenges while others are impacted by various barriers to their own learning.
As the doors to the academy open this week, let me suggest that each of us reach deep within our hearts, minds, and souls to find empathy for all those we meet. Each of us faces our own challenges, and it is so important that those we come in contact understand a little of what each of us is going through.
The Avatar (2009) film captures this well when Neytiri says to Jake and Jake says to Neytiri “I see you.” This means when you see me you bring me into existence.
I’ve got to think that by seeing the people we meet, we can make a difference in their lives and in our lives too.
So, empathy really matters!
Merica, D. (2020, April 15). ‘Empathy matters’: Joe Biden’s endorsers highlight the same trait. CNN Politics. https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/15/politics/joe-biden-empathy/index.html
Sahota, M., & Lewitz, O. (2014). Co-aching: How to use compassion to transform your effectiveness. Agile Alliance Conference, Orlando, FL.