We’ve been looking at empathy on Imagination Matters, and on that theme is one of The New York Times‘ excellent Text to Text series. Here, the learning tool is comparing works on moral indignation and empathy, aiming to provoke critical thinking in students. We think they’re really useful tips for us all, especially for where to find other points of view, and how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Can empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, help make us better people? Can it help make the world a better place?

If we could gain a deeper sense of what it’s like to be somebody different from us — from a different part of the world, from the other side of the tracks, with a different skin color, religion or gender — would we become more generous, understanding or compassionate people? Can empathy help bridge the divides that fracture us as a nation and world?

In this Text to Text, Jennifer Finney Boylan’s personal essay “Bring Moral Imagination Back in Style” and Nicholas Kristof’s Op-Ed “How Do We Increase Empathy?” take on those questions. Both pieces acknowledge that while learning to feel empathy may be challenging, it is a skill worth nurturing.

Why Bother?

To become stronger, better, faster and more competitive athletes, we need to work out and practice. We need to exercise. We need to stretch, sweat and push our way out of our comfort zones to achieve a higher level of skill and performance.

But what about the muscles needed to be an empathetically fit human being? How do we exercise those? And how do we create opportunities for greater compassion and empathy in our world?

Have you ever gone to visit a person or a place and left feeling refreshed for one reason or another? Maybe it was the beauty of the encounter or, perhaps, the exact opposite of that. Maybe its harshness offered you the chance to think about how people find the strength to persevere. Or maybe you read a story, listened to a song or viewed a documentary that ignited your thinking about the plight of another person, someone different from you. The ideas and questioning that come from life experiences like this can lead to the development of empathy.

Ms. Boylan’s essay addresses empathy from two perspectives. She weaves her experience of losing her hearing with the experience of being hated as a transgender person. She tells a story both about judging and being judged in the absence of empathy — and how being forced to imagine what another is feeling or experiencing can ultimately open our hearts and yield compassion.

Nicholas Kristof writes his column out of frustration. He is upset about what he calls “one of this country’s fundamental problems” — an empathy gap — and he sets out to describe what researchers know about empathy and how to nurture it. This piece picks up where an earlier Op-Ed, “Where’s the Empathy?”, leaves off. In it, Mr. Kristof writes about his friend, Kevin Green, ”a warm and helpful man who floundered in a tough job market, hurt his back and died at the age of 54.” The column was a call for empathy for those who are struggling, but, predictably, scolds those who complained that Kevin’s problems were of his own making. It makes him ask the question, “So what do we know about empathy and how to nurture it?”

By pairing these two texts, we encourage students to think about what responsibility people have to try to empathise with others different from themselves, and how it may — or may not — help make the world a better place.

Posted by:Imagination Matters Editor

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