Building Empathy Isn’t Rocket Science
It is much, much harder
Michel J. Fox taught me my first lesson in building empathy he responded to James Lipton’s question on why he went into acting. Fox said something like, “Two plus two is always four. There’s no mystery there. Engaging with people is far more interesting because understanding how people people think is so much more complex.”
This complexity rung true with me and after college, I started community organizing and social work because I wanted to understand people and communities and how to build systems to allow them to thrive.
Twenty years later, I’m a father of two young daughters. They are bright, inquisitive, and rarely settle for any easy answer to their tough questions. “Why” is the most comment start to all of their questions, followed by “why not.” They are like me and Michael J. Fox. They want to figure out complex things… or at least what passes for complex things for a seven and four-year-old. And one of the most complex things they face is building empathy.
Building empathy takes patience, listening, and understanding
Building empathy takes patience, listening, and understanding. It takes placing another person’s feelings and experiences before yours and learning how those feelings and experiences might make someone else feel. Our brains are not wired to think about other people when we are very young. They shouldn’t. Our brains are designed to keep us alive so naturally, as a baby, our primary focus isn’t “how does mom and dad feel about getting no sleep?” It is “I’m hungry and mom and dad better feed me.”
Thankfully, as early as six months, they begin to understand that other people do exist as separate from themselves. While they may not be ready to comprehend another person’s perspective, as a father, we can begin to role model and use language to help them recognize that other people do experience life differently.
My empathy lessons take place when fights break out or when toys need to be shared
For my kids, most of my empathy lessons take place when fights break out or when toys need to be shared. Most of the time, my girls play nicely, but sometimes they have a total breakdown of empathy. The world shifts and becomes all about them and if they can’t have a toy, no one can have it.
Lack of empathy has once again been splashed across our headlines
This week, lack of empathy has once again been splashed across our headlines with the killing of eight people in Atlanta with six of the victims being Asian women. These six women were daughters, who were once young and inquisitive and asking their fathers all sorts of questions too. They were mothers and members of their communities that brought life and love.
The last few nights, I’ve gone to bed praying for them and their fathers. I pray because as fathers our job is to protect our children and raise them to be strong and treat others with dignity and respect. The violence brought upon them and their families perpetuated by a white domestic terrorist should be a call to take action.
Every senseless act of violence should be a call to action
Every senseless act of violence should be a call to action. They should be a call to step back and realize how far we’ve come in building empathy and understanding and community.
At Fathering Together, we’ve been building a global community of fathers that seeks a more equitable world where fathers are active in the lives of their children. Last summer, We started #StandUpDads to challenge one another to not be silent in the face of injustice. And again, we speak up to raise our voice against this senseless violence. We invite you to sign our petition and stand up with us.
We cannot do this alone. Together we must learn how to build empathy and see one another with dignity and respect and to teach our children to do the same. Join us and let us work together.