Commentary Upfront Blog

Giving action to empathy

The gravitation of trends in communication, culture, and transportation – all drawing us closer together – is irreversible. This calls for heaping bushels of empathy. 

VOLUNTEER ELIZABETH HILL (L.) PLAYS WITH EVACUEE SKYLER SMITH AT A HOUSTON SHELTER DURING HURRICANE HARVEY AUG. 29.
JAY JANNER/AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN/AP
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Does empathy need to be taught? This week’s cover story by staff writer Sara Miller Llana looks at the unique way Denmark has answered that question.  

I can’t say that my fifth-grade daughter’s school has gone as far as Denmark has, where empathy training is so ingrained in the culture that it has a cake named after it. But this month, on the first day of school, there was the elementary school’s new motto hanging on a banner on the front fence: “Kindness comes first.”

So I asked my daughter what she thought of the talk about understanding and kindness at school. At first, she hedged: It was all right. But before long, the truth came out. “I’d rather have recess.”

Actually, there’s something to that. 

I never had empathy classes. Am I empathy-deficient? Here, my wife (a preschool teacher) intervened to save me from perdition: When we were kids, we learned empathy on playgrounds and in our friends’ backyards, she argued. We played. We fought. We cried. We learned. 

With today’s playgrounds now confined to adult-managed travel team practices or the tiny expanse of an iPhone screen, empathy education is a sign of the times.

To be sure, this is what you might call the Age of Empathy. The times simply demand it. 

All the lines that we have drawn around ourselves – from race to nationality – are getting fainter. Recent elections across Europe, Asia, and the United States might suggest a backlash. But the gravitation of trends in communication, culture, and transportation – all drawing us closer together – is irreversible. 

This calls for heaping bushels of empathy. 

The good news is that life offers a classroom of sorts, too.

Houston Texans’ football player J.J. Watt keeps raising his Harvey fundraising goal because people keep blowing the roof off the old one. He’s now up to $20 million. 

And in England, when it was discovered that a young math whiz from Wolverhampton was being denied a place at Oxford University because of what appeared to be a clerical error on his immigration papers from Zimbabwe, everyone from celebrities to politicians to the local police rallied to support him. He now has the required paperwork.

In both of these cases, something more than empathy was at work, too. Empathy helps us understand each other. That’s vital. But love is what does the work. 

Perhaps the memory of lava lamps and bell bottoms is still too emotionally raw for us to embrace that word openly. But empathy is only the elevator. Love is the action. 

In facing the British, Mohandas Gandhi said he wished to redeem his enemies by love. In contemplating the language of Scripture, Martin Luther once commented: “What word is more rich than that word, ‘love’?” The founder of The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Baker Eddy, once wrote: “I make strong demands on love....”

From Houston to Wolverhampton, and in schools from Massachusetts to Denmark, love is empathy empowered – a lesson to be learned in any classroom or even at recess. 

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