Empathy and Courage: Two Hallmarks of Great Learners and Teachers
On a frigid November night in 2012, a police officer in New York City was on patrol at Seventh Avenue near 44th Street when he came across a homeless man sitting barefoot on the sidewalk. The officer, who was wearing combat boots and two pairs of wool winter socks, described how the biting New England air was penetrating his layers. He could only imagine how the barefoot, homeless man felt.
So, the officer decided to do something about it. He walked down to a shoe store on 42nd Street, bought a pair of insulated winter boots and thermal socks for $75, then returned to the man, knelt down, and helped put the footwear on him. A tourist realized what was happening, snapped a picture of the kneeling officer, and posted the image on Facebook.
It went viral with nearly two million views in a few weeks’ time. The officer was widely honored and later promoted—an example of empathy in a profession so frequently misunderstood and all too often underappreciated.1
But then, as is so often the case in life, this seemingly simple act of compassion began to draw criticism. Investigative journalists caught up with the homeless man a few days later.2 They learned his name (Hillman), and found out that he was still barefoot. The boots were nowhere to be seen. When asked why he was not wearing the boots, Hillman responded “Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money. I could lose my life if I wore those boots.”3 Further investigation into Hillman’s background revealed that he apparently had an apartment in the Bronx paid for by social security. Soon other news organizations joined the growing debate. By now, the barefoot Hillman was aware that his story had somehow become the focus of national attention. His feelings, published in the New York Times, were boiled down to this: “I appreciate what the officer did, don’t get me wrong, and I wish there were more people like him in the world,” he said, “[but] I was put on YouTube. I was put on everything without permission. What do I get? I want a piece of the pie.”4
A New York City police officer was caught in an act of empathy by a tourist who snapped this photo, which was posted to Facebook and went viral. It also sparked a debate in the national press about how best to help people whose life circumstances and preferences are complicated, uncomfortable, and foreign compared with our own.
Many were impressed by the initial gesture of the police officer but bothered by various aspects of what followed. Why was the barefoot man really without shoes, and why did he feel entitled to compensation for someone else’s act of charity? Did the police officer have any ulterior motive, and did NYPD really want to encourage this kind of behavior on the part of its officers? Why did journalists feel so compelled to expose a barefoot and “homeless” man who received socks and boots from a police officer?
It’s easy to jump to conclusions. We all seem to have opinions about welfare, entitlement, homelessness, poverty, law enforcement, media, and other perennial “big” questions. But big questions in life defy easy answers. We are deeply scripted by our own personal experiences, which can just as easily cloud our perspective as illuminate it. This is not to say that the truth about big questions isn’t attainable, just that when it comes to timeless, soul-stretching questions, honest seekers of truth must travel difficult and less trodden paths to discover the answers. And, by the end of the journey, they often find that it was not the answer but the journey itself that was the real point of it all.
Empathy and Courage: Two Hallmarks of Great Learners and Teachers
Honest seekers of truth have both empathy and courage—two hallmarks of great learners and teachers. If empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, then courage is taking your shoes off, walking barefoot to your neighbor’s house, asking if you might borrow their shoes for a while, and explaining to them that your view about their shoes might have been wrong.
Real empathy takes real courage because we so often fear what we do not understand. And real courage is strengthened by empathy as we are “pricked”5 by our conscience to take a courageous stand in the wake of truth discovered by empathy—especially when it is apparent that our stand may be uncomfortable or unpopular.
Empathy in practice is not as simple or soft as it might sound. Like conscience, empathy is honed in the difficult and heart-wrenching crucible of personal experience. And like repentance, empathy is an uncomfortable virtue: it can hardly be gained doing the same things we have always done.
We might assent to it intellectually, but allowing ourselves to see and especially feel the world from someone else’s perspective can be frightening, in part because empathy invites us to question our own virtue.6 But never fear. If we are humble, we cannot be humiliated. As Elder Maxwell once put it, “The enlarging of the soul requires not only some remodeling, but some excavating. Hypocrisy, guile, and other imbedded traits do not go gladly or easily, but if we ‘endure it well’ (D&C 121:8), we will not grow testy while being tested.”7
All of us are guilty of missing the empathy mark at times. Our good faith efforts to empathize can sometimes lead us to capitulate in ways that weaken, not strengthen, leaving those around us feeling cozy, but with little or no resolve to do the hard work of improvement. On the other hand, and probably more common for most of us, when we lack empathy—often in the name of courage or strength—we can place ourselves in a dangerous box,8 enclosing us in a state of gradual blindness that is further complicated by breathing our own fumes.
Essentially, when we lack empathy, we pretend to know more than we really know. Pretending to know is a faulty defense mechanism. It is both dishonest and cowardly: dishonest because it is a fashion statement that appears outwardly secure but is inwardly insecure; and cowardly because we fear what we do not understand. Pretending to know keeps us from having to confront messy and ambiguous questions in life. Unfortunately, this kind of pretending not only strains relationships, but is damning to the pretender, who eventually believes his own façade, “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”9
Even when we have empathized well, we can act clumsily in response. But the risks of imperfect empathy are not reasons to stop practicing empathy, which, like a musical instrument, will grow in us with each painstaking attempt. Finally, when we have practiced empathy well, we “understand one another, and are edified and rejoice together.”10
Empathy, Resonance, and the Golden Rule
Empathy is also the science and art of “resonating.” Neuroscience demonstrates that we are created to resonate with other living things around us.11 We are literally wired for it,12 including “empathy circuits” in our brains that if damaged could actually impede our ability to understand other people’s feelings.13 Psychologists have shown that we are primed for empathy through attachment relationships in our first few years of life.14
Physics and music theory join with neuroscience in showing that all matter and energy in the universe vibrates, which produces sound, or “music.” Even if imperceptable to the human ear, the integrated senses of human beings can miraculously attune, or “resonate,” with these frequencies for purposes of understanding, communicating, and healing.15
Great teachers resonate with their students like a tuning fork: they synchronize with the learner’s fear, excitement, questions and emotions. Given their love of those whom they teach, they can hardly help themselves from this kind of resonant empathy.
Consider the example of a 15-year veteran high school teacher who was invited to spend two full days going through the exact same routine as her students, shadowing them in each of their classes, sitting next to them in their desks, and attempting to do the in-class and homework assignments that she and other teachers gave to the students.16 At the end of her two-day empathy experiment, this teacher resonated so deeply with the experience of her students that she published a blog post about it, which was so widely circulated that it was soon picked up by the Washington Post:
Key Takeaway #1: Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting. If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately require a mandatory stretch half way through every class and build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every class.
Key Takeaway #2: Students are passively listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes. If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. But this is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
Key Takeaway #3: Students feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long. I lost count of how many times we were told to be quiet and pay attention. In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students, and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.17
In fact, we are all “wired to care”18—but deeply “empathic people” have been careful over the crash-course of their lives not to allow relationships to be short-circuited by the increasing voltage of jobs to be done. And even when an empathy circuit shorts, as it does with all of us from time to time, the empathically-minded will pause to repair it before continuing, understanding all too well the systemic stress that a single strained relationship can have on the whole.
Empathy, Gethsemane, and the Golden Rule
More than interesting brain science and good pedagogy, empathy is a basic building block of morality, and a key to the Golden Rule. But it should not be confused with the Golden Rule itself. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you—they might have different tastes.”19 This and various other ethical dilemmas beg the question of whether the Golden Rule can really be the gold standard of human decency and morality.
A faithful law professor probably had it right when he explained to a class of young law students that “Truth is not something we find at the end of a syllogism, nor is it something we each decide for ourselves. Truth is a person.”20 Christ is the gold standard, “the way, the truth, and the life.”21
And so it is with many of life’s biggest questions that seem to defy easy answers: the pattern to follow is most fully expressed in the life of one man whose personal example gave us a maxim more empathic and courageous than the Golden Rule: “As I have loved you, love one another.”22
Easier said than done, for sure. What about Hillman, the “homeless barefoot man” with an apartment in the Bronx? What pattern to follow there? Was he well served by the charity he received? Does he deserve a “piece of the pie?” One journalist who practiced a little empathy managed to learn that Hillman was in fact a United States veteran, and also mentally ill.23 Even if that revelation doesn’t change our mind entirely, it probably adds a little flavor to what might have seemed a bland or even distasteful cariacature of his behavior.
Still, the big questions remain: “What to do” and “how to treat” the people in our lives whose circumstances seem so complicated or foreign? Maybe these are the wrong questions to start with. Maybe the more more important question is “why?” Why did God place “those people” and “those questions” in our lives?
There are no easy answers, but we are not left without a pattern:
And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.24
As we embark upon another school year together, and as we each “wrestle before God”25 with our soul-stretching questions—private and public—may we remember both the empathy and courage of Gethsemane, and consecrate our learning and teaching to Him whose love casts out all fear.
Grant Beckwith, Principal of American Heritage School