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Simple and Sensible

August 4, 2010

Over the weekend, Peggy Orenstein, writing in The New York Times Magazine, cited a study out of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan that got me thinking about empathy. President Obama has cited this as an important quality shaping his choice of nominees for the two most recent openings on the Supreme Court of the United States. And commentators have suggested that contrasting views of the part empathy should play in judicial decisions (much less everyday policy debates) represents one of the bigger points of disagreement among political partisans. So, I wondered, what does this mean for us in the fields of homeland security and emergency management?

When we think about the plight of those experiencing disaster, we usually think in terms of sympathy not empathy. We are moved to feel and express compassion for their situation, but only occasionally see ourselves in their position and ask what we would do ourselves or expect of others. Doing so would require us to accept our vulnerability, which for many of us suggests admitting a certain sense of powerlessness. But is this really a correct sense of the situation?

I think it is clear enough that we tend to have difficulties approaching troubling topics like our vulnerability to terrorist attacks or natural disasters with a positive frame of mind, that is beyond noting how positive we are that the occurrence of these events is a question of when not if. When we do think about these things, we often find it difficult to get past our deficiencies and shortcomings. After all, who has looked at these problems and not seen opportunities for improvement?

But empathy, unlike sympathy, asks something more of us. It demands that we ask what can we do for ourselves and others to make the situation better. Now clearly there are at least two ways we can answer this question. One starts with an assessment of our resources. This approach asks, “What can I do with what I have to offer?” The other takes a slightly different approach by asking, “What can I learn from this situation that will help make me and others better off now and in the future.” Learning without doing in this instance is inadequate. Practical knowledge requires engagement as opposed to observation and criticism.

The first approach reflects what Carol Dweck of Stanford University calls a fixed mindset. The fixed mindset leaves us prone to defeat and depression when what we have is not enough to get what we want or what we think others expect of us. Too often, the fixed mindset discourages rather than encourages us to act by suggesting anything we do will be too little or too late. The fixed mindset ignores the cumulative effect of many small contributions or the meaning others find in our willingness to give what we can even though it’s all we have.

The growth mindset offers us hope that our example will lead others to help. It affords us the opportunity to exceed our expectations and abilities by extending ourselves in unknown directions. It opens us to the possibility that a little bit of effort can alleviate a lot of anxiety or injustice even if it does not make the world a perfect place to live.

Perhaps more important to our recent discussions, though, the growth mindset insofar as it reflects empathy, embodies resilience. When we engage empathy, we offer ourselves and one another the opportunity to make things better by changing what we can even it it’s not all that is needed.

Orenstein’s article speculated about the reasons for the Institute of Social Research’s noted decline in empathy among college-aged students. She suggested that the superficial hyper-connectedness of social networks like Facebook and Twitter have edged out the sort of genuine engagement that leads to the sorts of lasting relationships that build a sense of community. I’m not so sure I buy her argument, especially in light of the way I see my teen-aged daughters using these tools every day.

Maybe the answer lies in another New York Times article I read the week before. David Leonardt reported on a study that suggested kindergarten produces a pretty big bang-to-buck ratio by giving kids skills they will need throughout their lives. This comes as pretty big news, especially as others begin to question the benefit-cost ratio of sending their kids to college.

So, what is it kids learn in kindergarten that serves them so well in later life? Well, somebody already wrote a book about that. Robert Fulghum’s whimsical but wise little book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergartendominated the New York Times’ bestseller list in 1989 and 1990. His prescription was as simple as it was sensible:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • The list went on, but you get the idea. When I watch my kids relate to their friends on social networks, I see them making efforts to reinforce many of these norms among their friends. And that behavior extends to the sorts of interactions I see them having with their friends when they get together, which is pretty often around our place.

    Now, I am not suggesting that disasters do not involve a substantial degree of complexity. Neither do I suggest that the things we have to do to put things right again do not involve many complicated steps. But I am saying that our ability to resolve this complexity and engage the complicated steps needed to create a better world involve simply accepting that we can make a difference even if we cannot accomplish the whole thing by ourselves. This is what community is really all about.

    Developing the capacity to safeguard ourselves and our communities can be as complex or complicated as we want to make it. Or we can accept that simple, sensible steps can make a difference if we engage others to join us. Applying our kindergarten lessons to life, whether we’re online or face-to-face would be a good start toward seeing this become reality.

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