As a teacher, I keep an eye out for short video clips that I can use to trigger class discussions. A colleague of mine send me this short clip, expecting me to be as thrilled as he was:
It’s (supposed to be) a lovely message from a Bible Fellowship that wants to convey the messages of empathy and a service-focused (not self-focused) life. Basically, it goes like this:
1. Guy’s life sucks. He’s always being inconvenienced by others, and he’s bitter about it the fact that they all think they’re the only person in the world. (Hidden message here, as he is, of course, displaying that very mindset.)
2. Man in black (and charcoal) gives him a magic pair of spectacles (these are not glasses, they are spectacles) that enables him to see what everyone else is “struggling” with. (Addiction, job-loss, no hugs).
3. He is overwhelmed and changes his attitude towards those around him – he is humbled by the realisation that their lives actually suck more than his, and he should try to make a difference.
Fade to black.
What’s right with this message is:
1. It’s not about you and your issues. Put yourself out of the way and look to see how you can help others.
2. Stop viewing the people around you as obstacles and see them as people.
What’s wrong with this message is:
1. The premise of the clip is that understanding creates empathy. If only we would understand what other people are going through, we would feel more compassionate towards them. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as can be attested to by anyone who has poured their heart out to a boss/colleague/labrador to be told “Listen, things are tough all over. Get over it”.
In fact, this understanding can create contempt (“What’s wrong with you? That’s not a big problem.”) and a culture in which you “earn” the empathy of others by the emotive power of your sob story. If everything in your life is okay, but you still feel sad and you don’t know why… tough.
What creates empathy is a will to have empathy. Understanding can direct it, but will not create it where it is lacking.
A truly empathetic person should not need magic glasses to tell them when someone is distressed, and will not need to know what’s wrong in their lives to take a compassionate approach to them.
2. It takes people’s power away. The message is “you can’t expect better from them, they’re going through a tough time”. (Which, of course, translates easily into “they can’t expect better from me, I’m going through a tough time”.)
Now, far be it from me to tell someone experiencing difficulty that what they’re doing is not good enough; but at the same time, I don’t think I should be actively telling them that it IS good enough (unless I know them well-enough to say).
Lowering your expectations of someone is actually robbing them of support that could give them strength to do better.
I’m sorry that you’re grieving over your best friend, lady, I really am. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you. At the same time, you and I both know that that doesn’t make it okay to be inconsiderate in the parking lot.
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