>A week or so ago, El 3atal and I attended a very interesting session (okay he tells me it was interesting since the lady conducting speaks REALLY fast and my Arabic wasn’t up to keeping up totally) on Emotional Intelligence in children. The speaker has her PhD from U of Jordan and seems extremely capable and competent. She’s done research in Jordan and her intent was to expose parents to the idea of Emotional Intelligence and help give them some tools to build EI in their kids.
During the course of the session, she remarked on some of the challenges that instilling EI faces in Jordanian society. Some of you may wonder how this impacts me. After all, I’m American right? One of the side-effects of raising the Beans outside the US is that they will have challenge being culturally American. This is true in part because we chose to put our kids in schooling that’s mostly Arab not mostly foreign. We also have family and friends from Jordan (naturally since El 3atal is from here). So, much of the local culture seeps into the Bean’s upbringing. So, these challenges are of particular importance to me. I do art projects at home with the Beans to instill creativity (something that I find poignantly lacking in Jordan). We also spend alot of time on critical reasoning and making (and defending) a logical argument. Rote memorization won’t go far in my house…
So, during this session, the speaker mentioned that one of the main challenges in Jordanian society is that Jordanians do not feel empathy. Wow. That is truly powerful to me. Since we moved here, I’ve been puzzled back the lack of community sense. I have had a hard time understanding the seeming inability to think of how your actions impact others. I put it down to not being raised seeing yourself as part of a community and not having respect for yourself and others. But her comment on empathy really grabbed me. It explains SO many things. So, to clarify what I’m going on and on about (I feel a long post coming), what is empathy?
Handy-dandy dictionary.com has this to say…
1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the
feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or
attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a
mirror of the self.
But really, what does that mean? I had an English teacher who explained this so simply that it has always stuck with me.
Sympathy is feeling for someone. Empathy is feeling WITH them.
Clearly, empathy is much stronger than sympathy. If you break your arm, if I sympathize, it means I’m sorry for you. If I empathize on the other hand, it means I feel the break myself.
Being able to feel empathy is what makes us able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and consider how our actions might affect them. In fact, being taught at an early age to empathize with others gives us the tools to care about our actions as we grow older. To a 2 year old the whole world revolves around them. Without ever developing the ability to empathize we remain in that self-centered 2 year old stage, don’t we?
So, if that’s the case and Jordanians aren’t taught to empathize with others, no wonder it seems like a free-for-all. I never really thought about it, but the Beans and I spend lots of time while reading books (something we do every night) talking about how the unkind actions of others might make the characters feel. We talk about whether it is nice and would they like it. I frequently ask them to put themselves in the character’s shoes. In fact, I usually ask them to put themselves in more than one person’s shoes. I didn’t think about teaching them about empathy, it just happens. Doesn’t it? But if no one ever taught you, how do you teach someone else? This is SUCH a powerful realization.
And, now for the challenge, how do we integrate this type of thought process into the educational system? And how do we go back and teach adults this life-skill? Because life would run much more smoothly if people understood the concept of empathy. If people thought, “how will my triple parking my car and blocking the road affect other? How would I feel if I were trying to get through?” before they took an action, they’d think twice. And then, they’d move on and walk the 5 extra steps. So, this is the hard part. How do we turn this around and breed people who are capable of feeling empathy? I guess we could send everyone to my house to read books, but that might not be practical…