Mrs Latham's assembly on empathy
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An extract from Mrs Latham's assembly - Monday 27 January 2020

'I’ve always liked Saturn, but I also have some sympathy for Pluto because I heard it’s been downgraded from a planet, and I think it should remain a planet. Once you’ve given something planetary status it’s kind of mean to take it away.'

That was a sentiment shared by Jared Leto on a recent UK tour, whilst his audience did not appear to share his concerns for Pluto he did give a perfect example of sympathy in contrast to empathy.

Empathy is defined as:

‘The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation’

Whereas sympathy is an expression of understanding and care for someone else’s suffering.

Whilst it would be challenging for Jared Leto to truly empathise with Pluto it is something we can strive towards every day.

Seeking to understand others is absolutely vital to all of us on a daily basis.  Firstly, for making friends.  It is almost impossible to make friends, or to keep them, without seeking to understand how other people’s minds work and acting accordingly.  Empathy and compassion; these are impossible without trying to put yourself into the minds of other people.  It is also therefore impossible to be kind without this; one can try to be kind, but this can only really be effective if you seek to understand what the other person needs at any given time.

When we think about the challenges facing the world today it seems to me that for many of these issues, from climate change to political dispute, we are often unwilling to listen to each other empathetically. Debates become emotive with opposing sides continually refusing to understand a view from another perspective. This is succinctly put in a quote from James Hoggan’s book, I’m right and you’re an idiot where he says.

‘The most pressing problem we face today is not climate change. It is pollution in the public square, where a toxic smog of adversarial rhetoric, propaganda, and tribalism stifles discussion and debate, creating resistance to change and thwarting our ability to solve our collective problems.’

When we think about politics and how many of those responsible for decision making treat each other, it is often the case that each party refuses to see the view of another. I am inclined to agree with Mr Hoggan and wonder how the world would be different if those with opposing views acted with empathy.

This week aim to really seek to understand another person: how that person feels, how he or she thinks, what he or she is really going through.  Everyone in here is different; many are vastly different to you, whether in character, interests, background or attitude.  Even those who are similar, or are already your friends, have very different stresses in their lives. 

Can you say with confidence that you genuinely seek to understand others?  That you ask enough questions?  Consider the power that a community could have if all sought to properly understand each other.

As we move into public examination season be mindful of those around you, if you see one of your peers upset or stressed seek to truly comfort them. Avoid falling into the sympathy trap when you see a friend worried, simply saying ‘don’t worry you’ll be fine you always are’ or ‘you’re really clever’ is not providing the support we all need. Really aim to put yourself in their shoes, and do not trivialise what they are feeling, think about their specific situation. Why are they stressed or upset? How would you feel if you were in the same situation? And what can you do to help?

So moving forward make sure you really take care of each other, truly listen to those around you and most importantly act with empathy.

  • Assembly
  • Empathy