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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Teaching Empathy (Part One)

The Pesach seder is all about empathy.

Wait...shit...she has used that word before. Um...what is Pesach again? And what is a seder? Pesach--or Passover--is a Jewish holiday in the spring that commemorates the exodus out of Egypt. The seder is the ritual meal that recounts this exodus. We read from a book, called the haggadah, and there are certain prescribed foods that must be eaten. Last night kicked off this eight-day holiday.

Marge Piercy writes in her book Pesach for the Rest of Us:

A seder can give a sense of connection—spiritual or activist or communal or simply sensual. The traditional haggadah tells us that each Jew should feel as if she or he (it of course said he) personally was freed by the Exodus and left Egypt that night—an empathy across history that every haggadah tries to make happen in each individual who attends. Martin Buber urged us to feel a connection through history back to that first generation that dared seek freedom.

So there's no division. It's not that you're sitting at a nice table in a suburban house listening to a story. You are in Egypt. You are grabbing your dough because there is no time to let it rise. You are feeling the anxiety and elation of the exodus, understanding how it feels to be released from slavery with the chance that you won't make it to the other side of the Red Sea.

It is wrong to use the word "them." It is all about the "we." We were slaves in Egypt. We fled Egypt. We were led by Moses. There is even a point in the ceremony where we talk about the four types of children: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the one who does not know enough to ask. The wise son asks "what is the meaning behind these commandments?" (because it's never wrong in Judaism to question something if you do so respectfully). The wicked son asks, "what does the seder mean for you?" effectively removing himself from the ritual. It is fine to question, it is fine to be uneducated, it is fine to not even know enough to ask. But to divide yourself from the experience? That is considered "wicked."

Interesting. Right?

So, we're told to be empathetic. To essentially reenact the feelings, the emotions, the thoughts that we went through when we were leaving Egypt. It's a difficult feat. I mean, it's hard to really get a sense of the panic when you're in a comfortable suburban living room. And it's hard to appreciate the matzah and hold it as a memory of what you went through when you had to flee when you semi-resent the matzah and the fact that you can't eat pasta for eight days.

And at the end of the day, can you really teach empathy? Can you tell someone "be empathetic" and have them become empathetic? Can someone outside of the experience understand what it is like to be in the experience without even dipping a toe into its waters? And how annoyed would you be if your mother started saying, "when we were at the retrieval..." Would you be touched or would it annoy the crap out of you if other people were co-opting your experience in order to practice empathy?

One morning, I woke up at my Jewish social action camp and my counselor slapped a letter on my shirt before breakfast. No explanation. My friends and I sat at the breakfast table talking about how our counselor was a nutjob and I left on the A as part of our middle-school-girl joke mostly because I saw that a few other kids also had an A on their shirt and it was probably some bizarre Jewish thing that I just didn't know about yet.

After breakfast, I went to my first activity and sat down next to a counselor that I really liked when I got in the room. He promptly got up without a word and moved to another seat. My heart started to pound as I wondered why he was angry with me. The activity was jujutsu and my friend, Rachel, and I were usually partners. But on this day, the group was uneven because she was absent and the counselor asked me to sit out since I didn't have a partner. I watched the entire activity from the edge of the mat.

I was a pretty sensitive 14-year-old (and still am--sensitive, I mean. Not 14) and I spent the next activity period--art--wondering why the jujutsu counselor was angry with me. I thought I was probably being paranoid, but the art counselor never took anything from me when I offered it to her. She needed scissors, I would hand her a pair, and she'd take the ones that Liz or Alicia were holding out. That's okay. Maybe she didn't see mine. Or hear me calling out things like, "HERE SUSAN I HAVE MORE BEADS RIGHT HERE IF YOU NEED THEM" as I held out a dixie cup full of glass beads.

At lunch, after I helped myself to the food that was being passed around, the counselor at our table snatched the plate from me and brought it back to the kitchen. She returned with a new plate of food and said to the rest of the table, "I just thought we'd want a different plate now."

Back at our cabin, I went to the bathroom and when I came out, the counselor loudly exclaimed that she now needed to go bleach the bathroom and we should all get into our bunk beds and be quiet while she was busy.

At rest time, I stared at the ceiling and wondered what I had done to piss everyone off.

Even dumping ice water out of an empty tennis ball can over the top of the shower didn't earn me this reception.

Even the time when we were messing around in the bathroom and I accidentally pulled the sink out of the wall, flooding the bunk, didn't earn me this reception.

I must have really fucked up somewhere.

At free time, my friends told me that they didn't want to hang out with me. I had obviously done something to piss off every counselor and frankly, they didn't want the guilt by association. So I spent free time alone. I read a book. I pretended that I was fine. Just reading a book. It's my fucking free time. And that's what I like to do with my free time. Sit by myself. Read a book. Not socialize.

Everywhere I went, people ignored me. Or moved. Or scrunched up their nose as if I hadn't bathed in three weeks. Even though all the counselors used to joke that I was the cleanest kid at camp. No one joked with me anymore. No one came close enough to me to joke with me. At dinner, a few people got up and moved from my table so I ended up skipping the meal because I was afraid I'd also have to eat alone.

Will Melissa ever learn why everyone hates her suddenly? Can empathy really be taught? Tune in for the second installment of "Teaching Empathy" because this post is getting way too long...


serenity said...

You know what's really sad about this story? I actually had a day like this - my FIRST day of 8th grade. I went through the day like I was a ghost - no one talked to me, people moved when I sat down. It was one of the most horrid experiences of my adolescent life.

(and I'm sure that your story will have some sort of lesson behind it.)

Anyway, my experience aside - I don't believe that people learn empathy unless they've suffered at some point themselves. I am not sure it's something you can teach without making sure that the person you're "teaching" suffers somehow.

But that's only my opinion... I personally had to learn empathy the hard way.

DD said...

Even though I'm sure there's some "logical" explanation for everyone's behavior, this post makes me both sad and angry.

It reminds me of almost every day of school for years.

decemberbaby said...

woman, I don't care how long the post is... I need closure on that anecdote!!!

Bea said...

Ok - a) what decemberbaby said. And b) it sounds like a really interesting and powerful social experiment. Can't wait to hear how it turns out.


Jess said...


I don't think that people can learn empathy. I think that people can learn to PRACTICE what empathy they have.

I know a lot of people in my fmaily who are terribly empathetic to everyone EXCEPT those (me) close to them. I get pissy about this because I know they CAN. However, I have a friend who can't seem to empathize with what we're going through, but she's always been like that a little, so I don't get nearly as angry (frustrated, yes) at her.

I think that most people HAVE a GREAT DEAL of empathy inside them and can use it if only they're willing to pull their heads out of their asses.

Aurelia said...

I think I know what this exercise is about, and the ending, and frankly, it's the number one reason I don't want to send my kid to overnight camp.

They used to do this crap at Catholic teenage retreats. After the kids got back, and everyone had been shown the example of "Here's what it feels like to..." the therapists and teachers at school spent weeks dealing with the fallout.

I appreciate that you are perfectly fine now Mel and nothing serious happened, and that you are merely telling a story to illustrate the teaching of empathy, but I think this kind of stuff only teaches others how to be cruel, by encouraging bad behaviour from the group.

I much prefer the way my support group and the local medical school does it, with personal stories from parents, scripts & procedures for medical personnel to follow, and practice play-acting. Only because I know Drs who have suffered losses and gone through IF, and they still suck at showing empathy, until we make them practice it with actors we hire,(or us).

Literally, we force them to fake it til they make it. Sort of like reciting the Passover story over and over til we 'get it' maybe?

Samantha said...

I think I know where this story is going... it must have a terrible day for you, and it also seems to be bringing back bad school memories for some of the rest of us. 14 is a tough time to be ostracized.

I think Aurelia's example of the local medical school is an excellent example of how to teach empathy. I did some leadership development training that also emphasized empathy, although not in such life or death situations. It felt a little corny at first when we did practice exercises, and play-discussed work-related issues, but the practice did start to actually change behavior. If you said to your team player, "I understand you feel upset about the way the project was handled," it did make you stop and think about the situation in a different manner.

TeamWinks said...

I think some people can be taught. Others, I'm not so sure.

Rush said...

As a fellow IF Jew from Maryland, it has been so much fun to read your posts. Chag Sameach! (Happy festival!)

Empathy is such a subjective thing-- for example, although I never felt ostracized in school, someone very close to me was not so lucky, and I learned how to avoid causing pain to others from her experience. But I would rather she had not been subjected to cruelty, much like this experience with IF: I have become a better person, better able to offer comfort to others, but I'd rather have a child, and have learned a different way.

But can empathy be a natural thing? Can you learn it without pain? obviously there are some who find it easier to put themselves in others' shoes, so maybe each person has a continuum of empathy, with a lower limit and an upper limit. Within that scope, we will shift as experiences impact us, but everyone has a a different maximum and minimum of empathy.

hmmm. I'm currently enrolled in a statistics course-- please forgive the math references.

Celeste said...

seriously, i need the closure, too.

"educators" who resort to those kind of tactics should be shot.

long overdue, but you get extra hugs from me.

Princess Barren said...

(Im)patiently waiting for the rest of the story...

Stacie said...

What a cruel and vicious thing to do to a child. Whoever thought that was a good idea should be forced to undergo their own empathy training. I'm sure you all learned valuable lessons, but I think that is, excuse the language, totally fucked up.

Anita said...

Damn it Mel, the post was not too long. Are you trying to teach us patiences along with the lesson in empathy? Empathy I got, patience not so much. I will be sitting here tomorrow morning hitting my refresh button over and over like a stalker waiting to hear the rest of the story.

Wen782 said...

The stiffening of the body, the discomfort as I shift myself in the chair... I think I may have even lowered my head, prepared myself for another verbal taunt, another sneering glance.

I spent a lot of time in school being that kid, or close to that kid, but maybe not to those extremes (what the counselors did). The kid with cooties, the odd kid, the weird kid, the one that was too skinny, her parents were too old and she was too busy writing poetry and reading books, pretending another life was hers for the taking, if she'd just dig it out of her mind.

I think you can offer understanding to certain situations (I "get" that the situation hurt your feelings), but actually being empathetic (it hurts me for you, just reading what you've written), especially to something emotionally painful, requires having dealt with pain equivalent to that which the other person is experiencing.

I'll give you what is probably an overused example... death. I have entries from when my father died that I still have yet to go back and really expand on. People can read it and hurt right along with me, though, if they've "been there and hurt like that". They can fill in those vast blanks I've left with their own heartache. If they haven't experienced it, while they might feel bad, it is more like merely watching an episode of a show surrounding a hospital, no real emotional connection.

I look forward to hearing how your story goes. Hugs to you for telling it.

niobe said...

It's interesting that you use the Passover story as an example of empathy, because, at least in some sense, it seems to be equally about exclusion -- about the physical and spiritual separation of one people from another.

I guess there is the part where the Egyptians are drowning and G-d forbids the angels to sing a song of praise because His creatures are being destroyed.

But there's also the "Pour out Your wrath on the heathens" part (which I usually missed as a child because I was too busy opening the door for Elijah).

I dunno. I'm going to have to think about this one some more.

(apologies to all who are not as into the minutia of the haggadah as I apparently am)

Mands said...

Waiting with baited breath for the conclusion to this horrible tale. Please finish the story... pleeeez!
I am sure everyone has felt like this at some point usually because of some insensitive pratt trying to make a point or teach a lesson.

May said...

Seriously, if I don't find out what on earth was going on right this minute I will cry. I cry at everything at the moment, so don't feel bad or anything, but I will cry.


My family don't do empathy. Despite the fact most of them have suffered, a few quite dreadfully. It's like they used up all their empathising on themselves.