Some of my students suffer from a serious disease that could be described as egocentrism. They sometimes get so caught up in Self, are so afraid of looking bad or their accomplishments being ignored, that they forget about Other and how their actions or words may wound the people around them. This disease can be detrimental to communication, particularly in their second language. It can also interfere with the environment of trust and mutual encouragement I try to maintain in my classrooms.
One week in a Teachers English Corner this disease got so out of hand that I decided our topic the following week would be empathy. The next week, we completed and discussed an empathy inventory which led to self-evaluation and regulation of attitudes and behaviors. Here are some things we learned.
Conventionally empathy is defined as putting yourself in another’s shoes or “feeling with” in contrast to sympathy or “feeling bad for.” In English Corner, we decided that sympathy comes more naturally. We feel for another because we’ve felt something similar before. Or because of shared experiences, we’re in the same boat (or could easily imagine boarding it). Empathy is more purposeful. We make the effort to figure out what another is feeling. We uproot ourselves from our usual position and journey a while in Other’s shoes no matter how awkward the fit.
My colleagues and I also pondered the opposite of empathy and concluded it ranges from milder to stronger, from indifference to condescension. In either case, the focus seems to be on Self. We view Other from our own perspective rather than attempting to “see with their eyes” or “feel with their hearts.”
I suffer from the same disease as my students. When they’re uncooperative, I’m easily annoyed rather than allowing for the bigger picture. When I disagree with someone, I barrel to the top of my soapbox without considering their perspective or how my barreling may affect them. When someone sins, especially when against me, I manage to forget that I have a reprehensible proclivity both to sin and excuse it away. It shouldn’t take much empathy to put myself in Other’s sinner shoes.
With their family interactions in mind, my colleagues offered wise advice for relating better to Other: lowering our expectations. From the familiar to the more foreign context of cross-cultural communication, lower expectations are one step toward empathy and understanding. Empathizing is a process of knowing Self and Other. First comes awareness of both our expectations and potential negative reactions when they’re unmet, and then, we observe Other in order to develop realistic expectations. Finally, we understand.
As part of knowing Self and Other, one lesson I have yet to learn is asking more questions or talking less, listening more, and learning from and about another. I’m also working on appropriate attitudes toward sin. I should be disgusted by sin, Self and Other’s, but only if I recognize that different is not always sin, and only if I’m disgusted by Self’s sin with much greater intensity than Other’s.
Egocentrism rather than empathy seems to be the default human response. Humans too easily turn a blind eye to the suffering of Other and too quickly condemn. Yet, while we clutch our stones, the Master Teacher squats with mercy and inscribes the earth. Is He numbering our sins, not to condemn but to save us from our indifference and readiness to throw stones? Or perhaps the dirt reminds Him to empathize, for He knows how we were formed and remembers we are but dust.
Daniel H. Pink (2006), A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Riverhead Trade.
Craig Storti (2007), The Art of Crossing Cultures, Nicholas Brealey Publishing.