The Power and Necessity of Empathy in the Face of Sadness and Fear

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By Tim Slattery

When I was in fourth grade, my dad had a four-month sabbatical in Canberra, Australia and took our whole family with him. There are a lot of things I remember liking about my class at Turner School there. We hung vines around the classroom and read the book Fern Gully while we learned about the rainforest. We created a “fashion show” where we presented geographical facts while dressed up as punny versions of countries (like wearing all checkered clothes for Czechoslovakia). We had serious discussions about discrimination and violence and things that made us feel sad or rejected or angry. I attribute a lot of this successful learning and growing to my teacher, Ms. Forsyth.


One of the many firsts I experienced during that time was my first multi-day trip away from my parents. All fourth graders at Turner went on a three-day camping trip, which included visiting historical sites and a nature preserve and staying two nights in cabins. It was thrilling, nerve-wracking, fascinating, connection-forming, lonely and fun all at once.
At dinner the second night, I had a terrible time focusing on chatting with people and eating and was overwhelmed by a sadness and anxiety that I hardly had words to express, and completely without my permission, tears started appearing in my eyes. Almost immediately, it felt like everyone in the dining hall was surrounding me, all talking at the same time. “Are you okay?” “What’s wrong?” “Are you hurt?” “Why are you crying?” Words that likely sprouted from genuine concern and curiosity stabbed into me from all sides as if they were accusations. In that moment, I didn’t feel like I had a good answer for any of them. Then a warm hand touched me gently on the shoulder.


I turned around and saw Ms. Forsyth who quietly suggested I come outside with her. As we sat on a log, she told me that when she was a young person she went to study in the US for several months all by herself, and while there were so many things that she loved about the experience, she often felt homesick. She missed her friends, familiar surroundings and places, certain foods, and, most of all, her family. She would cry and cry and then when her tears were all dried up, she would make a list of things that made her happy about her current surroundings and things she wanted to do or take advantage of during her time in the US.


A wave of relief and calm came over me as I realized that my sudden sadness was not irrational or abnormal or problematic but rather a natural human emotion. Also, after feeling overwhelmed by a sea of people asking what was wrong with me, my teacher’s easygoing, reassuring presence telling me there was nothing wrong with me was comforting and empowering. With my tears and insecurities in the past for the time being, Ms. Forsyth and I walked back into the dining hall to rejoin life.


I’m writing this after Donald Trump has been elected as the 45th President of the United States. It is easy to feel like hate and fear and bigotry have won. I strive to have the open-mindedness that I pride myself on extend to being able to hear and understand the struggles and hopes for the future of the half of our country who felt so ignored and disenfranchised that they chose a man who promises to listen to and value them one minute and spews hatred towards virtually every group in our country and world the next. It’s difficult for me to understand, but I am committed to making an effort because I know that the root of the problem can only be addressed by trying to bridge the gap between people with very different perceptions and experiences.


This morning, as I sat in a room filled with Ashoka staff members trying to process and reflect on all of the emotions and thoughts that are impossible to suppress at a time like this, I felt so incredibly lucky to once again be in the presence of people who openly affirm that it is okay to cry and it is okay to feel sad and afraid. The world we live in is immensely complicated, filled with so many things to be joyful and excited for and so many things that are broken and debilitating.


May we all seek out the people who recognize and affirm our humanity and vast range of emotions and experiences and who continue to believe that we can get more accomplished together rather than against each other, even amidst a crowd of those who are determined to see something wrong. May we also strive to be those caring people when we see others in need of a hug and comforting words, allowing us all to walk out of our inner darkness and rejoin life.

 

This article was originally published on 10 April 2017

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