Yesterday will go down as one of New Zealand’s darkest days.
My mother back in Christchurch messaged me to check the news. I had a hundred and one things to do at school that day, most of which remain on my to-do list. I was shocked and saddened by what had just happened in my hometown and my mind was elsewhere.
In an international community like the one I live and work in, on any one day someone in our community will be shocked and saddened by something that is happening in their home country. Yesterday was the turn of the New Zealanders and the way that it stopped my wife and I got me thinking. If we all took on each other’s shock and sadness, we would all be paralyzed and incapable of helping each other. And we need to help each other.
We need to act with compassion. Which I have learned is different from empathy which is different from sympathy.
Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling and sympathy means that you can understand what the person is feeling. As much as it saddens me to think about those caught up in this nightmare, it is impossible for me feel their pain. And given that I have never had a loved one taken by an act of violence, been victimized for who I am or what I believe in, or had another person’s life in my hands, I do not think I can even begin to understand.
Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another person. You do not need to feel or even understand someone’s suffering to relieve them of it. In fact, in many cases, it would be better if you did not. If a psychiatrist felt the pain of each client, she would be of no use to anyone.
Because compassion does not rely on personal experience, we can develop it in a classroom. It is very important that we do so if we are to expect our children to confront the ecological, sociological and technological problems that threaten our very existence. The solutions to those problems call for people that are able to see beyond themselves and those like them. They call for people that are willing and able to support and be supported by others.
For our children to be able to act intelligently, compassionately and with strength, we need to infuse academic challenges with the following global competencies:
- the use of concepts, knowledge, skills and languages of various disciplines to research current global issues;
- the understanding of economic, political, technological, environmental, and social systems worldwide;
- the understanding of multiple perspectives; the valuing of diversity;
- the ability to communicate with multilingual skills, through fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and listening and through the use of technologies;
- engaging in responsible action and service to improve conditions both locally and globally; and
- the ability to function effectively in an interdependent world.
We have high expectations of our students and they will achieve academically. And our message to them must be: If you are going to be a scientist, be a compassionate one. If you are going to be a lawyer, be a compassionate one. If you are going to be a soldier, be a compassionate one. If you are going to be a politician, be a compassionate one.
If you are going to be anything, be compassionate. Our future more than likely depends upon it.
Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion. Vintage, 2018.