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on empathy

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My memory is not very good.  I think.  I never really know with comparisons like this because it can seem like other people remember a lot of detail about their childhoods but for me there are really only flashes, a few scenes and a handful of really solid, well formed memories.  One such memory takes place in the yard of my elementary school in what must have been a warmish (I don’t remember coats) month of ’90 or ’91.

Jordan was in grade six the year I was in grade five.  The split class did little to erase the ocean of distance that separated the five from the sixes so I knew of him more than knew him even though we sat in the same room day after day.  The sixes were older and therefore wiser than us fives.  They kept to themselves at lunch and where we did cross it was mostly with us as giggling little girls just happy to have held their attention.  I can speak only for myself here of course, I’m sure others had their heads on straight but they weren’t me.  Mine was firmly angled towards the insecure and the self debasing.

As I remember it Jordan was also on the outside.  As a big kid with a shock of red hair he walked a little slower than than the other boys and didn’t seem to share their enthusiasm for baseball or aussie rules or sitting around bragging about things they had never done.  Jordan was quiet and studious, although I seem to remember school didn’t come easily for him, and he could often be found alone on the yard.

The day that Sarah came running to tell me Jordan was looking for me I knew I was in for it. We were new to this idea of girlfriends and boyfriends and while the terms were a year or two away from holding any real meaning people had begun to pair off in increasing numbers and it was starting to get uncomfortable. Now, everybody knows that dating within a small group is really just a visible and constant reminder of your rank within the group with your partner as the embodiment of where you fall. I knew in this kind of status based setup I was never going to merit a Dwight or even more unlikely a Colwyn but a Jordan seemed to put me even farther down the ranking than I fancied myself deserving.

For the rest of the day I stayed just ahead of Jordan and his efforts to speak to me. I hung back after lunch, disappeared to the bathroom when the bell rang and by the afternoon recess when all pretence had been exhausted I actually saw him coming and ran. Were my friends complicit in this? I don’t remember but it is clear to me that from my exaggerated behaviour it would have been hard to not know what was going on. The idea that I might be somehow tricking Jordan into thinking that my actions were anything less than hurtful is ludicrous. The truth of course is that I had all the grace of an eleven year old and an insecure and petty one at that. There was no hiding my motives because that would have taken a kind of empathy I hadn’t yet achieved.

When Jordan did catch up with me near the end of the day he proved to be the bigger person. He told me in no uncertain terms that I had been cruel and uncaring. That my actions had hurt him in a way that was easily avoidable and that if once he had wanted to ask me to be his girlfriend my actions had proven that I was unworthy.
That dressing down is something I have never forgotten. The feelings of shame and regret are so real to me today that I can’t imagine how I managed to stand under the weight of them then. After he had walked away I stood for a moment in the yard and tried to collect myself. It is still the strongest memory I have of that school, the one day that stands out among the eight years I spent there.

When I think of Jordan now, which is often, I see how wrong I was to dismiss this boy who obviously had a big heart but an even bigger sense of grace and poise and also how much work I still have to do in teaching my kids about empathy and in reminding myself every day that we are all people, intrinsically entitled to the respect and well treatment of others.

With two children in the difficult age where the application of empathy is tested and tried and often neglected, one just on the cusp of being able to fully realize that others are people just like him and the babe still years off this struggle is day to day right now. When we speak they are listening and when we act they see and yet we are imperfect in our empathy even within these walls. We snap when we are tired and blame others for not behaving up to our standards without taking the time to stop and consider how they are feeling and what effect or words and actions are having. Empathy is one of the greatest gifts we can give each other but it is learned and must be practiced. Much like a sport which depends on hours of practice to create a muscle memory of specific movements empathy challenges us to practice everyday and to push ourselves to act with empathy almost instinctively when we interact with others.

Today while sledding my five year old had his feelings hurt and sat down alone for a bit of a pout. Without blinking the two year old rushed to his side, rubbed his arms and made the little whimpering noises he makes to indicate sadness. Was he empathetic? Yes, to an extent, but more importantly at this age what he was doing was mirroring the way he’s seen the rest of us respond to others in the same position. Over the next few years his sense of empathy will develop and he will begin to make the connections between those little arms rubs and the soothing sensation his brother feels when he does them, then he will discover that he holds the power to affect the happiness of others and finally he’ll hopefully learn to use that power to enrich the lives of others.

Having watched this process as a parent over the last decade has given me cause to forgive myself a little for my actions in the schoolyard that day but I choose not to wrote the slate fully clean. In truth this mortifying experience that continues to sting more than twenty years later has been a source of much growth for me over the years. Remembering the pain on Jordan’s face as he clenched his fists and held his jaw in an effort to save face by holding his tears, the crushing humiliation of being knocked down by someone I had so readily dismissed in such a true and honest way, these are the memories I revisit to remind myself that no matter the difficulty, empathy and compassion are intrinsic to my sense of self, to my humanity, to redeeming the sins of my youth and to being the person I want to be.

For more on empathy in children click here.

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3 Comments

  1. Hi, Katharine!

    Happy birthday! I hope you don’t mind, but I found your blog through a link on Facebook and stopped in to see how you’ve been doing.

    It’s interesting to read this post and to see how you saw yourself back then, because that’s almost the opposite of how I remember you. You always seemed so strong and so self-assured. And most definitely empathetic. Maybe this example wasn’t your shining moment, but I remember others, too. Like the time in grade six, just after my parents had separated, when I couldn’t face the thought of going home after school and you invited me to your place instead. Just to give me a break. You probably don’t remember it, but I’ve never forgotten the kindness and understanding you showed as an eleven-year-old.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d share that and say hello. It’s nice to see you again, even electronically.

    Megan

    • Megan! How are you? Where are you?

      It was certainly one bad day among what I hope were many more good ones but those don’t leave quite the same impact do they?

      • You definitely had more good days than bad. :) But I understand being haunted by the ones we wish we could forget. Though you make a good point about learning from those and using them to guide our own kids.

        I’m doing well, thanks! Still in Toronto–still in the Beach, actually–married now, with a 19-month-old daughter. (I love the way you write about yours.)

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