Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed 3/16/2005 6:30 AM
Random Thought: More on Empathy

After ten years of apprenticeship, a student achieved
the rank of Zen teacher. One rainy day, he went to visit 
a famous Zen master in another city. When he entered the 
house, the master greeted him with a question, "Did you 
leave your wooden clogs and umbrella on the porch?" "Yes, 
master," he replied. "Tell me," the master said, "Did you 
place your umbrella to the left of your shoes, or to the 
right?" The visitor didn't know the answer, which made him 
realize that his awareness was not fully developed. So he 
stayed with the master and studied Zen another ten years.

You know, I’m not sure you have study another ten years. Just get cancer. I find that cancer is a curious word, if “curious” is the right word. It has a funny way, if “funny” is the right word, of never escaping your mind once you hear it was inside your body. It has a funnier way of affecting your soul. Your outlook on life, it’s meaning, and your sense of purpose is never the same. That one single change in your vocabulary, in your entire sense of being, like any single change, changes everything. You identify all those non-essentials that you have made essential and all those non-realities that you have made into reality. And, you see how they all take a backseat to life. Yeah, cancer, while life threatening, can also be life enhancing if you choose to let it be. It’s an opportunity to open your eyes and see a transcending “big picture” approach to life. It can be a whetstone that hones what you see, taste, smell, listen to, and feel. It’s a chance to enliven your soul with a sharpened sense of otherness. The paradox is that while cancer is scary, to say the least, if you have that transcendent “big picture”, if you have that keen sense of “otherness,” if you have that honed sense of self, you’re happier, calmer, far less fearful, far less covetous, and far more satisfied that those who are self-centered.

Some people have responded to my previous message and said I couldn’t have it both ways, that there is a contradiction between a transcendental sense “otherness” on one hand and a focused sense on yourself on the other. I don’t see it that way. To me it an inseparable I and thou, if I can steal Martin Buber’s title. First, it is true that in the self-proclaimed, mythical objective world of academia, “awareness” or “observant” infers being distant and detached. You step back and observe. You’re not connected and involved. You’re not emotional. You’re spiritless. I think of “awareness” and “observant,” however, as close up, intimate, involved, spirit full, and infused with the person or thing of which you’re aware. Awareness or mindfulness or understanding of other people, empathy, is a merging of someone else and yourself: thou and I. Second, the questions we ask, the things we notice, the perceptions we have, and the things we do are us. They’re reflections of, insights to, commentaries on, and extensions of who we are at that moment. Let me put it another way, the glue that binds the apparently opposing “otherness” and “self” together is found in Scripture: “Love thy neighbor as you would love thyself” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Thou and I. To be understanding of others, you must understand and be understanding of yourself; to manage others you must manage yourself; to connect with others, you must be connected to yourself; to be aware of others, you must be aware of yourself; to develop the abilities of others, you first have to develop your own abilities.

I know that I attempt consciously to use empathy to guide all aspects of my work, influencing not only what I say, but how I say things. It is, as I’ve said, one of my most important teaching tools. I’m always sensitive of my demeanor, the tone of my voice, the movements of my body, and the expressions on my face. There’s always a method to my madness and a madness in my method. I’m always asking myself if I am saying or doing something in a way that will encourage others to listen to me. That’s not giving in or being unassertive. That’s connecting. That’s supporting and encouraging. That’s offering promise and hope. That’s understanding. That’s fostering empathy in others. It’s keeping in mind that if I want others to appreciate what I am communicating, if I want others to respond to and work cooperatively with me and each other, then I must consider their perspective and how they perceive me. It’s in empathy where you’ll find the extra mile both in yourself and others. Understand, I can see the world through a student’s eyes and not like what I see. I can stand in a student’s shoes, and still disagree. I can be empathetic and validate what another person is saying, but have an entirely different view of the situation. It’s like I’ve said to my youngest son many a time during his troubled years, “I don’t love what you’re doing, and I don’t have to, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

There’s the difficulty with being or becoming empathetic. There’s no magic wand, incantation, or elixir. It requires deep, honest, and intense self-reflection. It takes work. It demands that we acknowledge that if—and that is a big “if”—we want to change anything we feel, think, or do, we have to change ourselves. As I look back, that is what my epiphany almost fourteen years ago was all about. However painful and reluctant it was, I had to admit to myself that my own feelings, attitudes, and actions had been the real cause of my discomfort, disillusion, and pain. I had to assume responsibility rather than level blame. I came to see over the subsequent years that real honesty means a consistency between what I feel, think, say, and do. Real honesty means questioning for the purpose of understanding rather than judging. Did I have barriers to overcome to become empathetic? I think so. No, you bet I did. It was hard to be empathetic because I really didn’t have any such models growing up. It was hard to be empathetic as long as I was blaming. It was hard to be empathetic as long as I talked and did not listen. It was hard to be empathetic as long as I wanted to be understood rather than understanding. It was hard to be empathetic as long as I let myself get angry, frustrated, disappointed, fearful, and resigned. There are other barriers. It’s hard to be empathetic if you’re judgmental. It’s hard to be empathetic if you can’t accept a difference of opinion. It’s hard to be empathetic if you can’t accept being questioned. It’s hard to be empathetic is you have trouble with criticism. It’s hard to be empathetic if, in general, you worry how others will react to your real honesty.

What we let stand in our empathetic way are those surface markers of our lives, the things we allow to keep us apart from each other and ourselves, that we use to elevate ourselves over others or degrade ourselves to others, that we use to wall ourselves off from others and ourselves, that we use to sort and categorize each other into proverbial separate cubbyholes: the positions we hold, our type of work, the houses we live in, the age we’ve reached, the perks we have at work, our gender, our sexual preference, the cars we drive, the titles and positions we have, the renown we’ve achieved, the wealth we’ve amassed, the schooling we’ve had, the music we like, the language we speak, the way we look, the ethnic memories we hold; the number of and types of publications we read—or display on our shelves and coffee tables, the political views we hold, the places we vacation, the clothes we wear, the ways we play, the income we have, the foods we eat, the places where we worship, our physical talents, our physique, our physical appearance, our weight and clothing size, our religious training, our social upbringing, how we like to be addressed. Naming who we are sets the course of our life, brings a way of seeing and responding to others and circumstances, determines how we shall walk through our lives. Our vocabulary, the word or words we use when we speak of ourselves, reveal what we most deeply feel about ourselves and others. All of these are a constant filming over of who we truly all are and who we are capable of becoming. It is a covering that deadens the spirit. It hollows out of our heart. It eats at our gut. It vacates our dreams. It fogs over our eyes. It severs connections among us so that some feel they matter while others are convinced they do not. It emphasizes everything that is wrong with us and focuses on everything we don’t have.

It’s not planned; it’s not an insidious conspiracy. Nevertheless, it is a hurtful journey of suffering disconnection, fragility, haughtiness, ridicule, snickering, arrogance, rumor, inadequacy, worthlessness, superiority, and inferiority nevertheless. It teaches us to live with a shrug or an anxiety, to hoard or covet, as a smoldering ember rather than as a blazing fire. And so, so many of us live and die that proverbial unlived life.

I’ve got something for you to do to see what I mean. List ten things that you think are important about who you are. For example, “I am a wife.... I am a father...I am a son...I am a professor....I am a Dean....I am a New Yorker....I am a PhD....I am an author....I am a noted authority...." etc. Then, one by one, blacken out each item on the list and try to imagine what you would be without that aspect of yourself. When all items are crossed off, what's left? Who or what are you when all these self-described aspects of yourself are gone?

So, let’s go full circle back to that umbrella. Maybe, just maybe, an education, at its core, for both teacher and student, is a stripping away and an undoing of attachments, an unlearning back to ourselves, to each other, and to the wholeness in ourselves and among us. Maybe, at its essence it is a learning to be unthinkingly empathetic to ourselves and others. To get there, to overcome the barriers I faced, I’ve found that I had to accept the simple truth that empathy is essential if I’m going to be in community with students, colleagues, staff, administrators, or anyone. I have to abide by those two simple but difficult rules about being neighborly and doing to other. I have to be honest with myself. And above all, I have to practice, practice, and practice all this each day. This is why, when it comes to the classroom, I take student comments and evaluations so serious, why I have students evaluate the class operation and comment upon me at every turn. Formally, I ask for their reflections after we’ve completed the class community building “Getting To Know Ya” exercises, at mid-term with a “so what do you think so far,” after each hands-on project with a “what’s going on,” at the end of the term. Even their daily journaling, though most don’t realize it, is an informal and constant commentary and evaluation. Why do I do all this? It’s because I value their reactions. It’s because I accept their feelings as real. It’s because if I am there to serve their needs, to help them help themselves to become the person each is capable of becoming, I have to connect with each of them. It’s because I want to know if the words I use to describe myself as a person and teacher are the same as the words these particular students use to describe me. If not, I have to think about what changes I would have to make to bring mine words closer to theirs.

It’s tough. I know. It has been a journey of years for me and will continue to be a journey of many more years. But, trust me, the time and effort are well worth it.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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