Teaching Empathy


By Paul Martin

1925fI’ve noticed something about working with teenagers. No matter how many amazing experiences I plan for them–retreats, mission trips, events, lock-ins–they have an amazing resilience to life change. It still confounds me that the most passionate students at the Saturday night bonfire, who couldn’t speak without bursting into tears, seem to fall back into the same rut after just a short time. There’s no doubt they felt something then, but after a couple of weeks or months, that feeling wears away. They go back to their lives and eventually lose that feeling.

I’m not sure that can be changed. I’m not sure it even needs to be. What I do know is that if I let the slow drift back to normal rest there, without connecting that moment to others, I miss something vital.

What I’m talking about is empathy. Empathy drives us to reach out to the hurt and needy. It allows us to connect with someone who is in need without minimizing their suffering. This connection that many people naturally use tends to be in the developmental stages in teens. Neurology confirms what parents (and youth workers) have known for ages. Teenagers have a hard time making long-range decisions. We now know that it isn’t entirely their fault.

All of the events I plan for young people have a great way of showing teens how to sympathize with others. They can look at someone’s situation and see for themselves the differences. The more extreme those differences are, they easier it is for them to see. That’s why mission projects are so helpful. But empathy teaches something deeper. It reaches into the prefrontal cortex and tries to make an emotional connection, not just a situational one.

Brené Brown has a great, short video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&noredirect=1) on the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy, according to her, minimizes a person’s pain, while empathy finds something inside us that connects to that pain. Youth ministries have such a great opportunity in 30 Hour Famine to help adolescents exercise their empathy muscle.

Teenagers notoriously miss feelings. They overplay and underplay them at whim without any awareness of their affect on others. It seems like every opportunity we give them will have a guaranteed amount of tears. In teaching empathy, we have the opportunity to help them connect their feelings with the people around them as well as those in another part of the world. We can guide them through their feelings with other people, not just acknowledging their feelings for them.

Brown talks in the video about the obstacles for empathy. As we apply people’s feelings to ourselves and connect, we want to make a silver lining. The silver lining disconnects us form our feelings. It’s a type of self-protection. Judgment is another obstacle. It distances us from other people through feelings of superiority. Both of these reactions are a false sense of control. Let’s face it: strong feelings make us feel out of control. Silver linings and judgment make us feel like we some control over those feelings. By minimizing the feelings others provoke in us, we trade compassion for control. In teaching empathy we help students disrupt these two reactions to suffering.

My favorite line from the video is, “Empathy is a vulnerable choice.” That’s the opportunity I see in 30 Hour Famine. We can take that opportunity for helping others and teach our students to make a choice. We can do this in many ways. We can ask the obvious questions about how it feels to be homeless or hungry for long periods of time. That’s easy, right? You will likely get feelings of being lonely, invisible, unloved, unwanted, or uncared for. We can take these responses and make them local by asking Have any of you ever felt like that? or Do you think there are people here who feel like this? Linking these questions helps us link our feelings for others to ourselves.

When we teach empathy, we really teach connection. Empathy helps us discover what we have in common with each other. Empathy is connecting with others without running from away and then taking a stance of vulnerability. Every student ministry I know of values this kind of connection. It’s what we hope for in every meeting and every event. Hopefully, awareness of that empathy can help us to make connections that last.