Walking in someone else’s shoes

Empathy, as defined by Cambridge Dictionary, is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining ourselves in their situations. At the start of this month, 8 June, was Empathy Day. It is a day totally dedicated to celebrating the profound significance of empathy and recognising the transformative role that books and reading play in fostering crucial empathy skills among young people. It also aims to inspire children and young people to learn more about empathy, cultivate their empathy skills and actively contribute to the creation of a more compassionate and united world.

A key question that often confronts us is: “how can we build empathy towards individuals with whom we may not share agreement?” Even if we identify ourselves as empathetic, we may notice instances where our inherent inclination, natural ability, and desire to empathise are diminished or nearly absent in the presence of certain people or specific circumstances.

Within our school community, the advantages of empathy abound, yet many of these advantages elude our conscious awareness. For example, when our students express what makes them happy – a sense of peace, connection and perspective – it often stems from their empathetic and genuine understanding of one another’s experiences. Conversely, when stress, detachment and negativity permeate our environment, it often arises from a lack of empathy towards our peers or the situation at hand.

But what precisely constitutes empathy? It becomes pertinent for us to grasp the distinction between empathy and sympathy. When we are sympathetic, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by a sense of pity for another, it inadvertently creates a distance – be it physical, mental, emotional – hindering us from comprehending their feelings or experiences. Empathy, on the other hand, allows us to truly understand, relate to, or imagine the depth of another person’s emotional state or situation. It implies feeling with a person, rather than feeling sorry for them, derived from the Greek root pathos. Therefore, empathy entails the act of sharing the load and “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” in order to understand that person’s perspective, showing care and support as a result. In doing so, it leads to the skill of compassion, which is about listening. It also challenges pupils to solve real-world problems by thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.

Engaging with characters in stories grants us all unique opportunities to explore the world from different viewpoints and diverse lenses. It bestows upon us to delve into the complexities surrounding thorny topics like gender inequality, and how these intricacies may manifest divergently and in distinct ways based on factors such as race, culture, political, or even economic circumstances. At Northampton High, we believe empathy can be taught, learnt and practised. As such, we have embraced the endeavour of stepping into one another’s shoes, challenging ourselves to do so in order to better understand what each of us may want, how we feel and how we see the world, recognising it is increasingly important in a complex, rapidly-changing and globally interconnected society.

The pandemic. #MeToo. Everyone’s Invited. Black Lives Matter – these collective experiences vividly demonstrate how important it is to understand what others are going through and the struggles endured by others. They illuminate how powerful it can be when we look out and stand up for one another to improve and heal wounds uncovered. To reconcile is to understand both sides, building upon the mistakes of the past and forging a new future through the principle of “forgive and go forward”, as opposed to simply “forgive and forget”. We aspire for children and young people to harness their superpower of empathy and become catalysts for positive change in the world.

Cultivating empathy in school is not merely an option; it is a necessity for fostering a strong and harmonious school community. Empathy is the skill that underpins connection, trust, safety and hence wellbeing. To this end, empathy deserves to have a place in every classroom. National Empathy Day beckons us all to focus on other people’s feelings and perspectives and, perhaps most importantly, it challenges us to use our improved lens and understanding to help change things for the better by making an empathy resolution. What will yours be? 

Dr Lee