Monday, June 20, 2016

Thoughts on Empathy

     I don't like politics. I don't enjoy conflict or arguing of any kind, and frankly I don't have much political knowledge because I never tried too. Most of my understanding of how our government functions came from Schoolhouse Rock videos. Knowing these things, I guess you could say that I have a biased opinion about this, and you might be right, but I just have a hard time seeing how easy it is for so many people to react to tragedy with "and this is why I'm voting for candidate X". The fact that we are able to use the death of another human to endorse our own opinion makes me wonder if unlimited access to constant information is teaching us to be comfortable with horrible things, because they're becoming familiar.
     Even though I'm not a political person, I'm not innocent of dismissing tragic events too quickly. I do that a lot, because I tell myself that these things happen because there is evil in the world, and there's nothing I can do about it. Last week, I had a rude awakening as I was reading an article about something tragic that happened recently in this country. The thing that struck me about this particular tragedy was two words I saw in that article. Two words stopped me from dismissing this event as inevitable tragedy in this broken world, two words that stopped me from shrugging it off because there's nothing I can do about it. The name of one of one of the victims was followed by the words "age twenty."

That's how old I am.

With those words, a news story that I understood intellectually became a real thing that I felt tangibly. Right now, funerals are being held for people my age, some even younger. Parents and siblings are having to say goodbye to their son or daughter, their brother or sister.  Like mine, their lives were just getting started. Like me, they had plans for their future, plans they were looking forward too. They had friends and family they never got to say goodbye to, pets that won't understand why they are never going to come back home. 
     Those people who were at first glance just names in another sad news story to me were someone's best friend. They were someone's son or daughter, someone's brother or sister. This event that will fade into a distant memory for me will be a day that someone will never be able to forget, because it is the day they lost a person they loved. Suddenly, this isn't just another sad story. Suddenly this is personal, tragic and uncomfortable because instead of realizing all of the ways I am different from these people, I have discovered something I have in common with them.
     I know that I said these kinds of tragedies are inevitable in this world, but perhaps I should stop using that as my excuse to dismiss them so quickly. I'm no expert, but maybe my ability to immediately dismiss or even politicize the death of another human being is not a testament to my supposed strength, but instead a sign that I am becoming desensitized to cruelty because it feels familiar.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that while I shouldn't live in a constant state of sadness, maybe I shouldn't immediately suppress my sadness either. Maybe I should stop dismissing tragedies as just another news story that I'm not going to read because it will only make me sad. Sadness is uncomfortable, and sensitivity can be humiliating. But maybe I need to be uncomfortable and humiliated sometimes. Maybe I need to have empathy for total strangers, simply because a lack of empathy is the one of the very reasons tragedy had the chance to become so familiar in the first place.
     Everyone knows what loss feels like. It is the one thing that no one can escape completely, no matter how much money, power, or fame we have. So why is it that we can so easily see someone else's loss as just another opportunity to talk about "what's wrong with this country" or who we're going to vote for?  Have we forgotten the human behind the story? Have we forgotten how to empathize? Let's start remembering, so that no child ever has to grow up in a world where evil is accepted as normal.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Don't Put Ice Cream in Your Hair :Lessons from an Elementary School Cafeteria.

     On a particularly hectic day at work a few months ago, I found myself saying, in my most serious grown-up voice "Why did you put ice cream in your friend's hair, that's not a very nice thing to do!" to which the kindergartner in question just as seriously replied, "I don't know, it just seemed like fun!"
     It was at this moment that I came up with the title for a post I would write at the end of the school year, which I planned to be a comical account of the situations I encounter as a person who works with young children. But since that day, things have happened. Standing in a room helping to supervise large groups of children five days a week has taken it's toll on me. I feel older, and not in a wise way. I feel older in the way that I've probably suffered hearing loss and I feel like I need a nap after work at two in the afternoon. It would be a lie to tell you that my job is always enjoyable and that I arrive and leave every day with a smile on my face. It would be far to idealistic to let you believe that I am not looking forward to the end of this school year, as much as I feel heartless for admitting that. But in the midst of my exhaustion and frustration there is a stubborn writer who can't resist the chance to use that catchy title I came up months ago before the tiredness and frustration set in, so here we are. I myself am surprised at what I'm going to say. I didn't expect current events to be a subject in this post when I thought of that title months ago. That being said, I can't help but notice the stark contrast in the devastating chaos of this broken world we live in, and the temporary, mildly annoying chaos of a few hours in an elementary school cafeteria.
     In a world where mass tragedy  is not the shock of the century, but a reoccurring event that manifests itself in a trending hashtag and temporary outrage until the next big story comes along in a few months, children offer a small glimmer of the fleeting innocence that still exists in the world. In a world where adults take to the internet to debate each other about which tragedy in American history was the most deadly, as if it's a competition to be won, I find hope when I observe that for the most part, children are quick to offer and accept apologies to each other when prompted.  Yes, working with children is exhausting, but it has provided me with a perspective that I hope to always keep close. You see, I get frustrated with the constant conflicts these children depend on me to solve, but at the same time I am deeply thankful that these conflicts are small and manageable compared to the larger and more complex problems they will face as they grow older. It is my hope that somehow, in some small corner of their minds, the way I helped them handle problems in their elementary school cafeteria will help them learn how to solve bigger problems in a responsible way as they grow up.
To the children I love. I'm sorry that you're growing up to inherit a world that is such a mess, but I have confidence in your ability to improve it. I know that I have made mistakes, but I hope the majority of my actions have provided a good example for you. I hope, in some way, I have given you someone worth looking up to. So, don't put ice cream in your hair, don't put ketchup in your applesauce, and don't grow up too fast. Thank you for being you.