Sit down and watch the news for ten minutes tonight. You’ll probably leave your couch feeling pretty depressed about the state of things in America, in the world. This isn’t new. Let’s be honest, the evening news has never been the platform we’ve turned to for optimism and positivity. But lately the stories, the tragedies, have been ripe with hatred and fear, violence and death. Everyone is asking how we fix it, whatever it may be. And I have no idea what the answer is. But I do offer one idea.
We need more empathy.
And I think we can find empathy in conversation. Merriam Webster defines conversation as an “oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions or ideas.” I don’t think we’re doing this very much anymore. We’re speaking, yelling, posting, blogging, sharing. But we are not spending much time having exchanges. It has become a one way street. We want the world to hear or read our message. But are we listening? On my campus I see students on opposite sides of various issues. They’re individually passionate, committed to their cause. But they won’t converse with one another. They refuse to engage in a conversation with the opposing perspective.
When the world is wracked by tragedy in Orlando, Louisiana, St. Louis, I read comments in Facebook groups telling people they aren’t mourning correctly, they don’t know how to be sympathetic, or they aren’t saying enough online. Others have a Facebook feed full of hourly postings, commentary, thoughts, and articles about the most recent tragedy or issue in our country. Is there a right and wrong way to mourn? Is there a right and wrong way to express your sympathy? And let’s step back and remember, the world goes around without a Facebook status.
Failure to post something does not mean it didn’t happen. Maybe the mourning, the conversation, the sympathy is happening in real life, face to face.
We need more of this. Conversation and listening face to face. We need to hear the other side, hear what people feel, think. We don’t need to agree. Part of the beauty of this country are the different opinions, belief structures, and perspectives. As student affairs professionals I think it’s important for us to model healthy discourse for the students we interact and work with. We need to create room for dialogue where it’s okay to disagree. We need to stop pointing fingers about who is wrong or right. We also need to remember when it is necessary for us to share our opinions. Often, especially when engaging with students, our role is to serve as mediator. In this capacity, our opinions will only cloud the dialogue. In other settings our opinions are welcome and important. Through conversation, and truly listening, we can discover empathy. And with empathy we can find common ground.
Dr. Howard Thurman, the first African American Dean at a predominantly white institution (and in full disclosure, that institution is my employer) penned this notion of common ground. He believed that we all needed to invest in an inward journey, a true discovery and understanding of self. Once we have pursued this journey (and really, life is the journey), and understand who we were, we can engage in an outward journey. Through that outward journey we are able to see ourselves reflected in others, a notion Thurman called common ground. Conversation, dialogue, relationships, shared experiences all generate an opportunity to discover common ground. And with common ground maybe the world will become a bit more compassionate, safer, loving, and supportive.
For more resources on how to create a culture of empathy on your campus, read our Civility Series.
About the Author: Abby Myette has been with Boston University, Student Activities for over five years and currently works as an Associate Director. She supports over 450 student groups do what they love hosting creative, engaging, and fun events across campus and the city. Abby is an active volunteer with Delta Gamma Fraternity. In both her work and free time Abby enjoys mentoring students and helping them find their path and their passion. Her own passions include running, reading, being mom to her 3 year old mutt Quincy, and volunteering with several organizations. Abby is a graduate of Suffolk University with a M.Ed. in Administration of Higher Education and Denison University, with a BA in Art History. Connect with Abby @anchoredAbby.