Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of the noun empathy is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”.

Through our morning assemblies in the Junior School, we have been reflecting upon why empathy matters. With impressive clarity, our students express how empathy is one of the most important aspects of creating strong relationships, as well as reducing stress and enhancing emotional awareness. We also agree that it can be tricky at times. One question that challenges us is “how can we be empathetic towards people we may not necessarily agree with?” Even if we consider ourselves to be empathetic, we may notice that with certain people or in particular situations, our natural ability and desire to empathise can be diminished or almost non-existent, especially this past year.  

As a school community, there are so many benefits to empathy that most of us are not even aware of. For example, when our students express what makes them happy – a sense of peace, connection, and perspective – it often relates to feeling empathetic and understanding towards each other. Conversely, when we feel stress, disconnection and negativity it is often due to an absence of empathy towards peers or towards a particular situation

But what is empathy anyway? It feels relevant for us to understand that empathy is not sympathy. When we are sympathetic, we may pity someone else, but will maintain a distance – physically, mentally, emotionally – from their feelings or experience. Empathy is more a sense that we can 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 – from the Greek root pathos. The second origin of this concept is the German term Einfühlung, which translates “to feel as one with” and first appeared in philosopher Robert Vischer’s 1873 Ph.D. dissertation. Vischer used the word to explore the human capacity to enter into a piece of art or literature and feel the emotions that the artist had worked to represent – or to imbue a piece of art or any object with relevant emotions. Empathy implies sharing the load, or “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” in order to understand that person’s perspective.

Relating to characters in stories offers us all unique opportunities to experience the world from different viewpoints. It enables us to consider thorny issues around gender inequality and how this may manifest itself differently according to race, culture, political or even economic situation. As a school, stepping into each other’s boots is something we have challenged ourselves to do, in order to better understand what each of us may want, how we feel and how we see the world – increasingly important in a complex, globalised society. 

The pandemic. #MeToo. Everyone’s Invited. Black Lives Matter. Each has demonstrated just how important it is to understand what others are going through and how powerful it can be when we look out for each other to improve and heal wounds uncovered. To reconcile is to understand both sides, building upon the mistakes of the past and creating a new future through “forgive and go forward”, as opposed to “forgive and forget”.

National Empathy Day has been a calling for us all to focus on other people’s feelings and perspectives. We have been enjoying empathy-rich books to deepen our understanding of other people. Some classes have been on empathy walks to connect to the reality of our local community. And then, perhaps most importantly, through our shared experiences we are challenging ourselves to use our improved lens and understanding to help change things for the better – by making an empathy resolution

What will yours be?

Nisha Kaura, Head of The Abbey Junior School