The Capacity for Empathy

When was the last time you needed a bandage? No, not for your kiddo. A bandage for you?

I tripped and fell walking down on the sidewalk a couple weeks ago. Ripped a hole in my jeans and earned a bloody knee and toe. I put on a brave face, but truthfully, I felt like plopping down right there on the sidewalk in a puddle of tears. That skinned knee hurt! The bruise from landing hard joined with the sharp sting of raw skin torn open to make quite an ouchie. 

It might be obvious that when we scrape our knee it hurts, but to be honest, I had an aha moment that day. As I sat in my car feeling bad for myself, I thought of my two busy sons (5 and 3) who fall and skin their knees approximately once an hour. I regretted that I had often silently felt inconvenienced or annoyed with their constant boo-boos and need for first aid.

I had forgotten what it feels like. I had lost my capacity for empathy.

The capacity for empathy 

If we can forget what a hurt knee feels like, how much harder is it to feel a pain we’ve never lived? For a mother drenched in white privilege, it is hard to conceptualize the life of a black mother. If you haven’t seen it, if you haven’t witnessed it, if you haven’t lived it, it is easier to minimize it.

Perhaps that is why the video of George Floyd’s murder lit a fire under a white community that had previously been so comfortable. The images and words are unmistakable. Unforgettable. Watching it branded an immovable image into our conscience that finally granted us one small taste of what our friends and neighbors have become hoarse trying to tell us. May we never forget the sick feeling of witnessing his death.

It is too easy to brush off our sisters’ pain if we haven’t felt what they feel. We have become accustomed to distancing ourselves from another person’s pain as though we were reading a fictional novel. Our self-oriented tendencies balk at the task of empathy.

White fragility says we are likely to feel threatened and defensive when we are confronted with our own culpability. Perhaps we could transform that fragility into decisive effort at advocacy and compassion. Like a mom caring for her bleeding child, now is the time to reach for our First Aid kit and see what supplies we have that could begin to tend to wounds. 

It’s a lot to ask for a person to stop and use their imagination to think of how someone else feels, but that is what a world of justice, understanding, and compassion requires. 

Today, I recommit to hearing stories of injustice and allowing them to disrupt my soul. I recommit to raising children who care about other people’s suffering. I vow to not discount or be inconvenienced by another person’s pain, even if I haven’t felt it myself. I vow to make raw the calloused parts of my heart. Because my kids deserve a momma who knows how bad a skinned knee hurts, and this world deserves white people who care about the pain of the oppressed.

Resources for Raising Empathetic Children

Sesame Street: Mark Ruffalo and Murray talk about the word “Empathy”

Harvard Graduate School of Education, Making Caring Common Project: 5 Tips for Cultivating Empathy

Moments a Day, Personal Growth for Families: Empathy Game, a free printable

Parent Toolkit: 42 Simple Ways to Raise an Empathetic Kid

Mindful: Three Ways to Raise Empathic Kids So They Become Compassionate Adults

Zero to Three: How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy

Parent Cue: Empathy is Tonic

Anne Williams
Anne is a mom to two silly and sweet boys, Jude and Reid. Her husband is Eric, a one-of-a-kind guy - coach and poet, English teacher and jock. Parenting at its finest has been an invitation to refine and grow as an individual. When parenthood looks like self-doubt and overwhelming chaos, the best remedy has been spending time with and swapping stories with other moms. Anne serves as a Pastor at Resurrection Downtown, a vibrant community in the Crossroads District where she cares for people when life gets hard and guides the process of reconstructing faith. She also blogs at www.thebradshawdrafts.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. I am trying to build a sermon on the events of the last few weeks. This article is really good! I hope you don’t mind if I read it as it is for my on-line service for June 14.
    I will be giving you credit for this article.
    Let me know if I have your permission.
    LaValle-Ironton Faith United Methodist Church

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