Thursday, December 17, 2020

Projection, Empathy, Compassion

During my first year as a teacher, I had a student, a two-year-old, who loved her hugs. She would hug me hello in the morning. She would hug her mother and father goodbye. She would hug total strangers if given the chance. It was a charming instinct, one for which she had grown accustomed to receiving praise. "She is such a loving girl!" "Oh, how sweet!" However, her hugging did not always go over particularly well with her peers. Indeed, more often than not, her unsolicited hugs, which were generally quite enthusiastic, bordering on tackling, would frighten other children, often causing tears.

The Golden Rule, most commonly cited as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is one of the underpinning principles of many of the world's major religions and cultures. As a moral guide, it relies on individuals to look inside themselves, to perform the mental experiment of putting themselves into the shoes of others, and to act accordingly. The problem, of course, is that the way I want to be treated isn't necessarily a good guide to how others want to be treated. This little girl enjoyed a good hug, but doing unto others was, in this case, obviously the wrong thing to do.

Over the next couple of years, with the support of the adults in her life, she learned to become more gentle and discerning with her hugs. One might say that she had learned to be more compassionate, thinking not about what she would or would not have done and projecting it onto others, but rather taking it beyond the Golden Rule and actually considering the needs, preferences, and desires of others, then choosing to act accordingly. Projection is the opposite of empathy, and compassion, which is feeling for others rather than with them, is what stands beyond empathy.

One of the most important public discussions we have been having in recent decades is the one about consent. Most often, it is applied to sexual relations, but it goes beyond that and the ongoing, often contentious, debate has highlighted the fact that we, as a society, are not particularly good at compassion, too often confusing it with projection or even empathy. Perhaps our biggest challenge as human beings is that our brains have evolved to believe themselves. Our prejudices and opinions feel like facts. We might be born empathetic, but compassion is something that must be learned and it can only be learned through the process of listening. 

As we helped that two-year-old learn to express her affection in appropriate ways, we did so by redirecting her focus from her own feelings to those of others. "He's crying because your hug frightened him." "She said 'stop it' because you were hurting her." It wasn't an easy leap for her, this learning how to "listen," to objectively evaluate the behavior of these other humans who perceive the world through different eyes and interpret it with different brains. We offered her alternative ways to show her affection. "You can use gentle hands." "Maybe he doesn't want to be touched, but you can smile at him or wave to him." As she got older and more verbal, we included the idea of asking, "May I hug you?" and then encouraging her to listen to the response.

This is not an easy thing we are doing, teaching ourselves to be compassionate. Projection is so much easier. Empathy comes much more naturally. "It's for your own good." "Don't be so sensitive." "We've dropped bombs on your fellow citizens so that you can be free, like us!" The Golden Rule can only take us so far.

A few years back, a group of Woodland Park preschoolers, while struggling with this exact thing, made a rule for themselves, Don't do anything to anybody before you ask them. It meant that we were all committing ourselves to listening -- a lot. It was an amazing challenge they set for themselves, one we could all stand to embrace.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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