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Posted: Mar 29, 2010 12:07


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by Rosemary McKinnon
Montana Academy

Letter from Lost Prairie

Last month I wrote a letter entitled "A world without empathy" based on the painful story of the rape of a young high school girl in Richmond, CA. I would like to continue with this theme of empathy and its development.

This subject was on my mind recently when I read a haunting short reflection - "Night"- by one of my long-time favorite regular commentators in the New York Review of Books (January 14, 2010) Tony Judt, who also turns out to be an exact contemporary and Cambridge graduate. In it he describes his experience with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) - a motor neuron disorder which gradually imprisons the sentient and still feeling person within a body which slowly and inexorably ceases to function. Tony's description of this "cockroach-like" existence in which he is utterly and completely dependent on others for a replacement of his limbs, a scratch or a minor adjustment is painful to read. After I read his articulate account of this humiliating helplessness and the ways in which he spends his nights "trussed, myopic and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts" I had trouble sleeping for several nights and every time I moved I thought of the impossible task of managing the wish to squirm and being unable to do so. His words had succeeded in evoking in me a close identification with his experience.

What is it that enables us to enter the experience of another person? Not all humans have this capacity. People who suffer from Autism cannot do this and those along the "spectrum" with Asperbergers Syndrome or Non-verbal learning disorders struggle to achieve this human task. A young child learns to understand the experiences of others via a process we call "attunement." A "good enough" parent understands the basic needs of his or her baby, attends to these and makes the infant feel secure. Add together enough of these experiences and the developing child begins to mirror the care that he has received. We have all watched three or four year old children minister to their baby dolls or stuffed animals. When a parent feels sick or tired and lies down many young children will come up to take care of them with a tenderness that mimics the care that they have themselves received. And so it goes ideally as they grow and begin to have and understand more complex feelings and experiences.

How do our students learn empathy? On campus we make a conscious effort to help them with this task. Many of the students who arrive on campus are blunted in their development of this achievement, as a consequence of their general immaturity and self-centeredness. The first steps occur, as they do with a young child, in the experience of being understood and cared for themselves before they can accurately understand the needs of others. Gradually we begin to push them beyond their selfish preoccupations to listen to and attune themselves to the experiences of others. When they start to demonstrate that they are able to do this the results are often moving. The daily groups are designed to push them to think about the experience of their fellow students. At first this may be merely an identification. So-and-so feels just like me. John jokes that incoming students tend to exercise their new found ability to express their feelings and then to move on to how others might respond to what they think about ME, but still lack the ability to move beyond a fixation on themselves. Gradually, however, a shift starts to take place as relationships deepen. Students begin to see that, although there are commonalities, there are also differences and that each person is unique in respect to their history and experiences. Empathy starts with caring for another and maybe even to begin to see them as equal to oneself in importance. We also ask our students to begin to recognize their parents as separate from themselves, as adults with their own needs and wishes, and to assess how they might feel. This journey is a precursor to an adult version of love.

Our western culture emphasizes the individual to the detriment of the larger social unit, which many other cultures do not do. Whether empathy is more or less developed in other cultures I do not know, but I do think that our society's preoccupation with the individual has made it more difficult for young people to grasp the experience of being part of a social network. On campus we spend a good deal of time helping students to see themselves as contributing members of a small community with its own rules and expectations. Such lessons take place on teams, where students must work together to do chores and relate to each other in groups, and in the dorms where they must learn to live together and are affected by the behavior of others. In the larger community they learn that they can participate and try out new roles during their time on campus.

Above all else I would submit that empathy is learned not through lectures but through close relationships which are formed with other students and with staff. There are few more eloquent demonstrations of this than the goodbye circles held whenever students are leaving campus. Typically these groups take the following format. The students who are staying each address the member of the group who is leaving and then the departing member addresses each remaining individual in the group, including the staff. Just before our December graduation I attended one such goodbye circle for students whom I had come to know well on campus. I was touched by the recognition of struggles between students, their acknowledgement of their own anxieties, false posturing and true feelings. They spoke honestly of regrets about time wasted in fights and misunderstandings as well as of close times spent in each others' company. They showed genuine affection and tears. They expressed admiration for those who were leaving and who had become strong role models for them. "When I saw Jack dunk the ball I wanted to be just like him." They admired the other's caring and consistency and were able to see through a tough veneer. One young man was in tears for 5 minutes before he could bring himself to speak to his mentor who was leaving. He said that he had been angry with him that very morning when his mentor said to him "You are my responsibility. Come with me and don't worry about what the others are doing." When he recovered from his anger he realized that he had been reminded of his mother who had often said similar things to him and how he would miss the caring and safety of this parallel relationship. As I listened I knew that these young men were well on their way to being caring sons and attentive boyfriends who would eventually step into adult roles as loving husbands and self-sacrificing fathers and strong members of communities. I was proud of them.

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