A Month of Empathy

You know how an idea sticks in your head, and you just can’t stop thinking about it? This month I can’t stop thinking about empathy. A lot of people I’ve talked to lately have mentioned the importance of empathy, both experts and non-experts. Empathy – or the capacity to understand another person’s situation – seems to be at the root of compassion, communication, understanding, even household balance. 

I knew empathy was a theme I wanted to write about in my book, so I took some time to read up on it this past month. I thought I’d share a few of my favorite resources here.

1. I loved Jamil Zaki’s book, The War for Kindness. There was a wait list at our local library, and I am impatient, so I ended up buying the e-book. Zaki’s research taught me that empathy is linked to both nature and nurture. He concludes that people are born with a certain bandwidth for empathy that is passed on genetically. BUT through experiences, people can either maximize their empathy range and become more empathetic, or they can minimize their empathy range and be less empathetic. I think this is an especially important point for people who spend time with kids. It seems that it is up to the “village” to help young people maximize empathy.

2. So how do you help kids maximize their potential empathy? The first step is helping kids connect with emotions; if they feel an emotion themselves, they’re more likely to empathize with another going through a similar circumstance. Because boys are not typically socialized to embrace emotion, Promundo has an excellent online resource called the Global Boyhood Initiative. According to their website, “Nearly 70% of parents say that their sons don’t feel comfortable sharing that they are scared or lonely.” To help correct this reality, the website offers cards, categorized by age, to start helpful conversations with young boys. I’ve already tried many with my son, and have learned a lot about him in the process.

My new colleague and friend, Leslie Forde, is conducting a study on parents during the pandemic. Have something to share about your experience over the last 12 months? You can take the survey here. She is encouraging fathers as well as mothers to reply. I did the survey myself, and it only took 6 minutes, so not a huge investment in time! And documenting peoples’ pandemic experiences is important data to collect.

There is an important and deeply emotional conversation happening in many of our states about transgender people and sports. Viewpoints are often driven by ideology and not by science, so I was happy to hear this fact-based NPR story. Dr. Eric Villain, who is an advisor to the International Olympic Committee, says new laws banning transgender girls and women from sports is harmful to transgender athletes and female athletes.

Villain ends the interview by saying “I would encourage parents and people interested in sports to look at all the sides of the issue and not being fixated on the sole issue of gender. There are so many different attributes for an athlete that make them so diverse, so interesting, so different. Some will be good at one sport. Some will be good at other sports. And we should just celebrate this diversity.”

Last week was devastating for the Asian American community. I am often disappointed with quick media bites that over-simplify situations, which is why I particularly liked this article in The Lily, where Asian American scholars weighed in to discuss the various issues at play in last week’s tragedy: Historical anti-Asian sentiment in the US, Intersectional Feminism, Policing, and misinformation and stigma around sex work. “This type of collective grief is why it’s all the more crucial for everyone to better understand and have productive conversations about what happened in Atlanta, scholars say. Here’s how to get those conversations going.”

It isn’t lost on me that I have ended where I started - with empathy. Zaki writes that empathy is directly linked to kindness, and that “empathy’s most important role is to inspire kindness,” which he defines as “our tendency to help each other, even at a cost to ourselves.”