Empathy: Most Important When It Is Most Difficult

As the founder of Children Mending Hearts, an organization devoted to teaching empathy to at-risk children, I rarely speak out about politics. That's just not where our focus is, and there's always been a concern that that kind of action on my part would detract from the message of CMH, which we've always felt was bigger than politics. And now, more than ever, I know that to be true. Empathy, compassion, Global Citizenship, thinking outside one's own personal realm of experience in an attempt to reach a deep understanding of what others are going through -- this message that we teach to young people every day in our programming is only becoming more essential as our country and the world enter a dark and frightening time.

Facing Uncomfortable Truths

In the last year and a half, we here in the United States have been in the midst of an increasingly poisonous cacophony of angry rhetoric during an incredibly unconventional election cycle. And now we find ourselves on the other side of the election, looking ahead into an uncertain future. Not just because of a result that many were shocked by, but because of the realization that truths a lot of us clung to as certainties, as a part of our identity, were not quite what we thought they were. That the America we thought we were living in was much more divided than we could have ever imagined. But just like any other painful event in life, facing uncomfortable truths, though incredibly difficult, is the only way to begin a journey toward healing.

Of course, it's one thing for us as adults to try to figure out how to wrap our minds around everything that's happened and everything that lies ahead. That's challenging enough. But it simply isn't just about us. We are also beholden to our children, the community of youth we parent or serve who depend upon us all for guidance. Children are very intuitive, and because of that, much ado has been made in recent months about how to help manage the stress some of our youth are feeling right now. A quick search yields a multitude of articles that emerged in the days and weeks following the election, articles that give advice to parents about how to talk to their children about the election cycle (and, more specifically, the results of the election). Most of these articles attempt to unpack the complexities of a difficult decision: how much should we be honest with our children about the state of our country and the world, and how much should we attempt to shield them from the pain and stress we ourselves are feeling in the face of uncertainty?

Putting our Trust in the Future

Our work at Children Mending Hearts has long been doing this hard work on the ground, walking the fine line of presenting the beauty of different cultures while tempering those lessons with the hard truths of the difficulties people in different countries face every day. We teach empathy through arts programming that immerses students in the cultures of countries like Haiti, Japan, and Kenya while also refusing to shield them from the harshness of what the world can deal out to good people. The earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, and the struggles of daily life for many people in Kenya are all topics that are discussed in our after school programming. It is our goal to help cultivate a generation of young people who are educated about the world we live in and compassionate and empathetic enough to take action where they see suffering. And though it is tempting to want to shield them from the worst of the world, we have to remember that they are far more resilient than we could imagine and that they are the key to a kinder, more compassionate future.

The politics of a changing America are on my mind right now, but ultimately this isn't and can no longer be made to be about politics. In our programming, above all we teach empathy. It is a simple concept, but one that is often the most difficult to practice when it is the most important. And right now is one of those times. It is imperative that we cultivate a relentless empathy in our children who are hearing polarizing rhetoric everywhere they go. Rhetoric about people from other countries and about their fellow Americans who may have different opinions than they do. If we do nothing to combat that spirit of divisiveness, the whole world will suffer. If we believe in a brighter future, as hard as that is to imagine right now, then we owe it to our youth to give them a fair shake when it comes to information, and to be an example of empathy and kindness, even when it is very difficult to do so. We will continue working towards that brighter future through CMH programming, and we hope you'll join us in that fight. We are so much stronger together.

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