Can you imagine a society where everyone freely gives of their means and time to bless and help each other without being motivated by their own agendas; where everyone communicates effectively, understands one another, and all are unified in truth and righteousness; and most significantly, where everyone chooses to live this way, rather than being coerced by men and governments to do so? This kind of sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?
Not only do I believe that this is possible, I believe that this will be a reality one day – when Jesus comes again and reigns on the earth. But I don’t believe this way of living will happen automatically; we have to prepare the way for His return, by preparing ourselves. By healing and preparing our hearts.
We must experience a shift in our thinking and feeling about ourselves and all those around us.
It can be kind of discouraging to look around and see how far the world is from the type of society I described above. If you need proof, just bring up politics in a social setting, or spend a while on Facebook or other internet forums, or take a drive during rush hour traffic. It’s rare to see diplomacy, respect for differing beliefs, consideration, unity, or charity. So what can we do? What solutions are there to combat the selfishness and pride that prevails around (and perhaps in) us? There may be several, but I want to offer just one principle that we can focus on: empathy.
Empathy can be defined as seeing and feeling from another’s perspective — putting ourselves in their shoes and feeling with them.
Why is empathy a key to establishing this type of society? If we have empathy, we notice others’ feelings and needs, and we care enough to help them. We will be less self-absorbed and more willing to give of our time and means, so that there are no poor among us. If we have empathy, we acknowledge others’ experiences, paradigms, and opinions, and we respectfully find common ground. There will be less criticism, gossip, offense, and enmity, and more understanding and unity. I read a great article on Psychology Today’s website entitled Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder? It talks about this very issue, particularly about a lack of empathy for those who think and believe differently from us. It also goes into brain science a bit and how our brains are hard-wired for empathy and can be re-trained to respond with empathy. Definitely check it out.
Why are we (as a society) lacking in empathy? The article above suggests that it’s a preoccupation with things — money, possessions, status. I certainly think this is a problem, but I think that lack of empathy begins much earlier in life.
The foundation for empathy development begins in infancy as parents respond appropriately, quickly and lovingly to their babies’ cries and their needs (fyi, parents consistently soothing their babies is what actually leads to those children’s eventual self-soothing, and also models the way to selflessly respond to other’s needs). For the last few generations there has been more and more advice leading parents to ignore their innate instincts and their babies’ cues, to the point that this is now the cultural norm in most developed areas of the world. “Don’t hold your baby too much or you’ll spoil him.” “Let her cry — she has to learn.” “Don’t ever rock or nurse your baby to sleep unless you want to create bad habits that you’ll never be able to break.” All of this advice is conflicting for many parents and causes unnecessary stress (unnecessary because it’s not actually true). But fear leads most parents to continue the trend of listening to the world’s advice rather than trusting their God-given instincts and listening to their babies. Because of this trend, many of us may not have had totally secure attachments with our own parents, which has lasting effects — not only for us, but for future generations, because, unless we intentionally reflect on our own childhoods and choose to heal unhealthy patterns, we are likely to repeat them.
Moving past infancy we are met with big, strong emotions in toddlerhood. We are conditioned to believe that tantrums and meltdowns are bad behavior or our child’s way of manipulating us, when in reality they are nature’s built-in release valve for all of those big and overwhelming feelings. Toddlers’ brains are still quite under-developed and they are incapable of reasoning through their upsets on their own the way adults are (and even though we are more capable, how often do we react inappropriately when we’re upset??). Adults are their babies’ and toddlers’ emotional regulators until they are capable of that job on their own. (And even if our kids were trying to manipulate us to get their way, don’t we all do that when we don’t think we can get what we want or need just by asking? How often do we manipulate children?)
Due to this misguided belief about big feelings, most of us probably were not encouraged as children to feel however we felt, and to process those emotions in a healthy way. (I’ve become hyper-aware of the countless times I hear adults telling children to stop crying.) Most of us probably grew up repressing our big emotions, and still do so today, until they manifest in other (uncontrolled and unhealthy) ways when we’re triggered, and we say and do things we wouldn’t otherwise (or perhaps we just shut down emotionally, which harms our relationships). Maybe some of us have a chip on our shoulder because we were never understood, and so we feel like hurting other people back.
And so it continues through childhood and adolescence — society tells us that it is a parent’s job to control their children, and if they don’t, those kids will be unruly and out of control and selfish and entitled. So rather than learning cooperation and problem-solving skills and mutual respect and empathy, kids learn to do the right things for the wrong reasons (fear of being punished or to gain some external reward), at least when there’s a chance they might get caught. Being raised with fear, threats, control and punishment results in disconnection and external motivation. In other words, many people never really develop much of a conscience, self-discipline, concern for others, or a sincere desire to do good for the sake of doing good. See this post for more effective discipline.
“Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions not retribution.” -L.R. Knost
Going back to our society’s obsession with material things, I have to wonder how much of that is a misguided attempt to fill some deep unmet emotional needs?
So then, how do we increase empathy in the world and prepare our hearts to dwell with Jesus?
Very first, I believe we need to just overwhelm our own hearts and souls with self-love, acceptance and compassion. We need to embrace every part of ourselves — even the not-so-great parts — and show ourselves gentleness and compassion. Accept every emotion by simply allowing it to be there without judgment and without using it to hurt anyone. The emotion itself is just a message. Let it be heard and felt. We can reflect on our own childhoods and lives and determine where our beliefs have come from and whether they are true and serving us well or not. We can change our understanding and perspective if we need to. And we can always turn to the Savior to heal us.
From there I believe that a Christlike society begins in our individual homes, with the way we treat one another, and how we teach our children to treat one another. Modeling empathy for our children, particularly by empathizing with them, but also in our interactions with others, teaches them how to empathize with others as well. The home is the perfect training ground to develop character and Christlike attributes. The more parents teach their children empathy, the better off the whole world will be.
We can start by listening to our instincts and intuition that tell us to hold our babies and respond lovingly to their emotional needs (which are deeply real needs).
We can start by accepting all of our child’s emotions, and empathizing with them (even when we need to set limits on their behavior). Resist the urge to stop the crying or to jump to teaching any lessons. You don’t have to fix anything. Just acknowledge their point of view and empathize: “You really wish you could keep playing and you’re disappointed that we have to go home now.” (Then once everyone is calm, you can do your teaching if you need to. Your child will be more open to your teaching once they’ve been heard and understood anyway.) Resisting the urge to stop the crying or fix the problem also builds resilience and shows children that they are capable of handling uncomfortable emotions.
We can become more present in our lives and focus on people rather than things. People always remember how we made them feel, and children in particular are influenced and shaped by this.
“What is most important almost always involves the people around us.” -Thomas S. Monson
“To you who are parents, I say, show love to your children. You know you love them, but make certain they know it as well. They are so precious. Let them know.” -Thomas S. Monson
While empathy in and of itself is vitally important, I also believe that it is preparatory to a higher law — that of charity. If empathy can be defined as seeing and feeling from another’s perspective, then charity can be defined as seeing and feeling for someone from the Lord’s perspective (see Moroni 7:45-48). I believe that the more we practice empathy (stepping out of our own shoes and problems or whatever we’re preoccupied with at the moment, and really seeing and feeling about a situation the way the other person does), the easier it will be for us to see others as the Lord sees them, and to feel about them accordingly. Charity is a gift from God, but we can prepare ourselves to receive that gift by practicing empathy and by living the gospel the best we can. Then once we are each filled with the pure love of Christ, preparing the way for Him will be second nature to us. The two great commandments, loving God first and our neighbor second, takes care of all the other commandments. Let us put God first, practice empathy, and pray for charity.