Monday, January 24, 2011

Learning empathy

I was thinking the other day about some of the children’s stories that helped shape my view of the world and my outlook on helping others and having empathy for others. Empathy (understanding, sympathy, compassion) is in rather short supply in the world today. I can’t help but think that if there was more empathy there would be less hatred and fewer problems, because if you can step into another person’s shoes and see how he or she lives life with all of the attendant problems, then you have opened your mind and heart to that person and it won’t be possible to ignore his or her sufferings. Empathy means putting yourself in someone else’s place. It’s not easy because it may mean suffering along with another person, shedding tears with them, grieving with them, and just being there for them without having your own agenda. The latter is hard at times because we all have our own agendas and we would like them to come first, especially if we have often put our own wishes and goals on the back burner. But sometimes the needs of others must come first.

The Lame Squirrel's Thanksgiving by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey is one of those children’s books that had a huge emotional impact on me as a child and that I remember all these years later. It tells the story of a little squirrel that got his foot caught in a trap which led to him limping about and being unable to gather nuts for the winter quickly enough compared to the other squirrels. So when autumn arrives he doesn’t have enough food saved for the winter. Thanksgiving comes and he starts to cry because he is alone and hungry. Mrs. Striped Chipmunk thinks about the little squirrel and wonders how he is doing. She puts together a basket of food for him and goes to visit him with her gift. As she is walking to his house, she meets the other animals in the neighborhood—the woodchuck, the rabbit, two field mice--who ask her what she is doing. When she tells them they all contribute some food item to the basket, so that it becomes so heavy that she needs help to carry it. The field mice step up to the plate to help her carry it. The little squirrel is overjoyed and grateful as Mrs. Striped Chipmunk sets the table for his dinner and the field mice help him to the table so he can eat. There is enough food in the basket to last him the whole winter. This little story is all about empathy—thinking about the plight of others, stepping in to help, finding help along the way from others who also want to help, and making someone happy. It may be a sentimental story that tugs at your heartstrings, but perhaps we need more of these kinds of stories in the world, as adults and as children. Parents and teachers didn’t need to pester us about the importance of empathy when this type of story presented the value of empathy so simply and so beautifully. I also remember my mother telling us about her own mother and some of the women in her mother’s neighborhood in Brooklyn—that they would feed the vagabonds who knocked on their doors asking for food. There was apparently some kind of innate civility and respect on both sides. The vagabonds did not steal from these women and the women did not appear to be afraid of them. It is such a different world today—one would almost never think of doing this out of fear of being robbed. The codes of conduct have changed. Yet there are still people who help the poor and the hungry in the ways that they can, apart from the official charitable organizations that are set up to do this type of work. The churches I attended in New York and New Jersey sponsored soup lines and food baskets and gift trees at Christmas-time—I remember all those attempts at helping others. They made an impression too and it felt good to be a part of them.

There are other children’s stories that made an impression on me as well. One of them—In the Great Walled Country by Raymond MacDonald Alden--had to do with a far-off land of children where there was a forest of Christmas trees that were covered with gifts at Christmas time, and the children could go to the forest and seek gifts for others from the trees. It was never the case that they picked gifts just for themselves. But one year a ‘well-meaning’ stranger to the kingdom convinces the king to issue a proclamation stating that each person could pick his or her own gift in an attempt to make the whole process more effective. There was a little boy named Inge who did not like this new arrangement since his sister was crippled and could not go into the forest to get her own presents. So he ignores the proclamation and picks gifts for his sister, filling his bag full with presents. As he leaves the forest he meets many other children who wonder where he got all the gifts, because when they entered the forest they didn’t ‘see’ any gifts on the trees. He tells them that he had no problems finding gifts, and they stand there, puzzled and unhappy. They go to visit Grandfather Christmas to ask why he left no gifts on the trees this year. He answers them “The presents were there, but they were never intended for children who were looking only for themselves”. The moral of this story is crystal clear. A steady diet of such stories and you end up learning that it is a good thing to think of others, to put others first. And you learn empathy—putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. And that’s a good thing.



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