Radical Empathy

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I tend to snicker at certain over-the-top terms we place on events and moments in our lives nowadays. I'm not even referring to those enormous, gigantic times in life like winning the Nobel Peace Prize or at least earning double points at Nordstrom Rack. Comedian Louis C.K. has this stand-up bit about the way we talk. Not only does he make fun of how we talk -- sloppy and without enunciation ("like big fat, eighth graders") but how we go right to the pinnacle word to describe something really, practically speaking, pretty ordinary. Words like "hilarious" when you run into someone at the store or "genius" when you have an extra phone charger that your friend can borrow. And my all-time favorite -- "amazing," as in "This bucket of chicken wings is amazing."

I was reading The New York Times Magazine the other day when I hit such an expression that I thought, Come on now. The term was "radical empathy," and it was the name of an exercise used in Joel Lovell's article The Tale of Two Schools (May 4, 2014). His article was about two very different schools in New York City and a program that attempts to promote an understanding amongst its two very different student bodies, one at the public high school University Heights and the other at the private high school Fieldston.

The Ethical Culture School's location just across the street from Central Park contrasts starkly with University - Heights High School's poverty stricken location. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • The Ethical Culture School's location just across the street from Central Park contrasts starkly with UniversityHeights High School's poverty stricken location.

University Heights High School is in the South Bronx, sitting on St. Anns Avenue, which according to the Census Bureau, is part of the poorest congressional district in America. Ethical Culture Fieldston School is six miles away and cost $43,000-a-year to attend. A little over eight years ago, students from the two schools began exchanging letters as part of a program called Classroom Connections. Letters then moved into discussions between the students from both schools. They met periodically to discuss hot topics, anything from gun violence to race relations. It was in April of this school year that their meeting resulted in the magazine's lead piece. It was a time for the students to break off into pairs and tell their story and then have that same story retold with the same care and interpretation ... this time though by their partner.

Under the guidance of Narrative 4, which is an organization that facilitates story exchanges between groups from all parts of the world, the pairs of students shared stories that in some way defined them. Then a few hours later when they reconvened, it was then the partner's responsibility to retell the story in first person, taking on the persona of his or her partner. There was trust and care that went into the sharing of the story with his or her partner and then the delivery of the same story to the entire group. I was bowled over -- at first by the term that I hated and then seeing the term in action.

First of all, I think plain, old empathy in today's world is hard to come by. We are hardened folks. We are skeptical of the panhandler. We want to overhaul social programs. We think if you pull up those bootstraps hard enough, anybody can get by or get through. But this radical empathy is acknowledging the moment where you came from and where you are. It isn't used as an excuse. It is a way to say this is a time in my life that made me who I am and maybe who I want or need to be.

And though the exercise was given the fancy term of radical empathy, it really was just well-told stories. It was the art of listening and retelling, something I was so happy to see happening in the wealthiest and poorest among schools. And as I looked at the photographs of the partners standing side-by-side, arms over shoulders or the slight hint of a leaning into each other, I thought to myself that radical empathy was indeed nothing short of amazing.

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