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Empathy, Isolation and the Rising Generations (August 20, 2019)

I haven’t ‘written’ in some time as I have been posting short videos on various topics. Today something came across my desk that made me pause and decide I had to share it. I’ve written before about Dr. Tim Elmore of Growing Leaders (https://growingleaders.com/blog/) and his thoughts on helping children grow and thrive in the complex world of today. This morning his blog centered on the way modern isolation leads to a lack of empathy (or as I prefer to say, compassion) for others. To quote

[The Rising Generations are] overwhelmed and over-exposed. They are growing up in a world that is more isolated, more polarized and more de-humanized, by screens and content with which they’ve been exposed. Sadly, while we see more needs around us than ever, we’ve become more jaded by it at times. We feel “sad” and want to avoid sadness. Exposure without application can do that to anyone. The glass will always seem half-empty unless we choose to fill the glass.

I hear about the problem of too much ‘screen time’ almost daily. Dr. Elmore’s comments cast it in a new, more disturbing light. Living in a world with little or no compassion for our fellow human beings is not my idea of what the future should be. Absent a proactive approach (actually I think a better phrase is an activist stance) to nurturing and promoting empathy/compassion that is where we are headed.

Dr. Elmore offers five actions families can take to foster empathy in their children:

  1. Place them with people who are different.

One way to begin to develop empathy is to expose students to those who are different than them, so they begin to see that “different” doesn’t mean “bad.” As my kids grew up, we got them involved with an ethnically diverse theatre arts program; we also took them to feed homeless men and women downtown. They saw how “normal” those people are, very much like them in many ways.

  1. Expose them to needs and suffering up close.

I took my children overseas for them to see war-torn Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s as well as low-income Kingston, Jamaica. Once they got up close and could not avoid the obvious—it had an impact on them. These exposures must be up-close and personal. Close enough for them to see, feel, smell and hear the needs of others. TV shows or YouTube are not enough.

  1. Introduce them to problems that are unique.

Sometimes we withdraw in our comfort zones because we are unsure about the unknown. We feel unsafe or insecure. I found when students see unique problems that capture their imaginations, it cuts through the noise and clutter of their minds. It stands out when it’s different. One of my students grew passionate to get homeless people’s shoes when he saw how many had none.

  1. Enable them to reflect on how it’s relevant.

Kids feel empathy when they reflect on the relevance of another’s suffering. Research works best when it’s “me-search,” involving needs they can identify with. My daughter was intrigued by diabetes as I allowed her to give me my insulin shots or test my blood sugars. We tried to demonstrate empathy when someone lost a loved or were hurt in some way. Their pain was our pain.

  1. Help them take one step in response.

Empathy is cultivated when students observe suffering and it leads to action. In fact, the way we enable students to prevent becoming jaded or cynical is to find one action step whenever they see someone in pain. The empathy muscle grows when information (about someone’s pain) leads to application.

Many of the families I serve have compassion as guiding family principle or virtue. It can and should be actionable on a daily basis. As Karen Armstong, the creator of The Charter for Compassion (https://charterforcompassion.org), says

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

While it is annoying (I hear it labeled rude) to see children (and adults) glued to their devices, it is also a festering symptom of a much larger problem, isolation and the loss of empathy/compassion.

What to do? As with most issues, start with a conversation about compassion. Copy the Charter for Compassion and create one for your own family, do a family compassion project or trip. The key is to do something. Be an activist for compassion as a family virtue.

I have many more resources and ideas to help families address this issue. Let me know if you would like to have a conversation.

Thanks for reading!

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Empathy, Isolation and the Rising Generations (August 20, 2019)