Empathy, as an action, connects us with the feelings, needs, and desires of others. As such, it connects us with ourselves as well. The more connected we become, the better we feel; and the better we feel, the healthier we become. That’s because empathy as an action leads, invariably, to empathy in action or giving from the heart. We move naturally from connection to contribution. Read on to learn how one person as done this over the past thirty years through adopting and caring for children. It’s a story that’s good for the soul.
For the past two weeks I have written about the nature, role, and importance of empathy in human wellness. It’s not enough to just eat right and work out regularly. That may lead to fitness, but it’s not enough to generate wellness.
Wellness requires a larger view and a third factor. The larger view is clear: by definition wellness is about wholeness. Apart from a vital, life-giving connection with others, we may find ourselves physically well but socially, emotionally, and spiritually ill. The longer that goes on, the more our physical health will suffer as well. There’s no way to have one without the other. Wellness is, as they say, a total package.
The American Heritage Dictionary points to the third factor when it defines wellness as “the condition of good physical and mental health, especially when maintained by proper diet, exercise, and habits.” So what are those habits? They include such things as sleep, rest, relaxation, hygiene, and self-care (all of which we discussed as part of the Optimal Wellness Prototype).
But they also include the care and feeding of others. Simply put, they include empathy: the orientation and actions to make life more wonderful for others. The more we come from that place, the happier we will be. And the happier we are, the healthier we will be.
The connection between happiness and health has been well documented, especially in the past decade through the evidence-based research of positive psychologists and other scientists. The effect of happiness has been shown to be comparable to the effect of not smoking in terms of preventing illness. It really is a magic elixir, when it comes to wellness.
That’s why in last week’s Provision I made the case for empathy as an action with its own weight and merit. It does not need to lead to any other actions in order to be valuable. Understanding the feelings and needs of another human being, with respect and appreciation, is enough to make people happy. Conversely, failing to take feelings and needs into account is enough to invalidate everything else.
One reason people may fail to express empathy is because we don’t want to open ourselves to the risks and responsibilities of empathy. The risk is getting connected to a world of information, such as feelings, needs, desires, and intuitions, which we often discount or even fail to take into account. That world makes many people uncomfortable.
The responsibility is to care about that world in ways that make a positive contribution. That’s the difference between emotional and empathic intelligence. Emotional intelligence can be used to tear people down just as easily as it can be used to build people up. Empathy, on the other hand, is not empathy unless it is seeking to make life more wonderful for one and all. Empathy, by definition, is always supportive. It is always about heartfelt giving and generosity.
The responsibility to care moves naturally from connection (empathy as action) to contribution (empathy in action). Even primates and other wild animals, once they get connected to the pain or joy of others, seek to console that pain or celebrate that joy. Human beings have the ability to go beyond consolation or celebration all the way to compassion: we can fully adopt the perspective of another and actively imagine how to make life more wonderful for them.
One person who has done that in ways that has touched my wife’s and my life for more than 30 years is our friend Jennifer. We met her in college, at Northwestern University, and we have stayed in touch ever since. When Jennifer was 24, only a few years out of college, she adopted two children, who had been abandoned by their mother at a single-room occupancy hotel in Chicago.
Twenty-six years later, at the age of 50, Jennifer adopted three more children from a Russian orphanage. In between those two adoptions, Jennifer took care of countless other children, including my own. Her generosity towards children is legendary. When it came time to bring the children back from Russia, my wife joined her on the journey. Empathy was in full swing on this one!
When my wife and I tell people about our friend, a single, 50-year-old woman who just adopted three children from Russia, most people think she must be crazy. We prefer to think of her as modeling empathy in action, with a clear calling to connect with and care for children.
Recently, I had an opportunity to ask her some questions as to where this calling came from and what it means to her. When it comes to understanding empathy in action, I think you•ll find her answers both inspiring and insightful.
Bob: So you•ve been back from Russia, with your new family, for about two months. How’s it going?
Jennifer: Well, I’m exhausted all the time, but it isn’t stressful. It feels really truthful, like I am fulfilling my destiny. The kids make that easy. They are just really, really happy, and that makes it all worthwhile.
Since we got here, the kids have learned how to ride bikes. They never had that opportunity in Russia. Now, it’s hard to get them off the bikes. The oldest one rides down the street with the biggest smile on her face. It’s like every day she’s going to Disneyland. They•re all so curious and happy. You can’t ask for more than that.
Bob: Where did the inspiration for this come from? Most of the people we mention it to can’t imagine adopting even one child from Russia at the age of 50, let alone three. They all think you•re a saint!
Jennifer: Well, either a saint or crazy! But it’s crazy good, not crazy bad. When I care for kids, especially kids who aren’t ready yet to care for themselves, it connects with my story and who I want to be in the world. Indirectly, it’s my way of caring for me.
When I was growing up, I had a lot of monetary privilege, I went to a great school, and I had a lot of opportunities, but I didn’t have that nurturing home situation, which I absolutely craved. So in high school, I started to enjoy creating a nurturing environment for kids by volunteering as a babysitter for families that couldn’t afford a babysitter. I did that all through college, babysitting and trying to figure out ways to make that kind of home life where kids could be safe, know that the adults will take care of them, and just be a kid.
When I adopted my first kids, just a few years out of college, that’s what I was trying to do. I wanted to create a home life where the kids would be nurtured and safe.
After those kids were grown, other kids just kept showing up in my life. One girl, for example, was getting kicked out of where she lived, a Catholic girls home, so I said, “You can come and live with me, until you finish high school.” Another time, I got reconnected with someone who I knew as a child and who now had children of her own. She couldn’t create that kind of nurturing home life, so I spent four years as a surrogate parent with those kids.
There were lots of other situations. When I thought about doing foster care again, someone said, “I think you should consider adopting again. I think you love providing that day-to-day care for kids, but only adoption enables you to really control what life will be like for those kids.” That’s when a light bulb went off. I knew immediately that that was what I wanted to do.
Bob: It sounds like your empathy for kids grows out of your lack of empathy as a kid. It’s almost as though you want to do for them what was not done for you. Can you say more about that?
Jennifer: Although my parents both loved me and supported me in the things I wanted to do, we were not a close family. My brothers and I fought a lot of the time. I don’t think I realized how bad it was, however, until my junior year in high school. We had a sister city in France and our high-school had an exchange program where our students would go to live with their families and then, in exchange, their students would come to live with our families. Lots of my friends were doing it, and I dearly wanted to participate in the program.
So I applied, which meant that our family had to be interviewed to be sure we met the requirements. The interview was usually just a pro forma matter, but they turned us down. I think we were the only family in history to be turned down! They said we didn’t do anything together as a family.
That was so telling that we got turned down for being a host family. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the money or the room; it was that we didn’t have a family with close enough connections. Well, if our family was not connected enough for an exchange student to live in for a limited period of time, what do you think it was doing to me and the rest of us who lived there all the time? I’ve had a tender place in my heart for creating strong connections with kids ever since.
Bob: So now you have a new opportunity to create a loving home, with three new children. What have you learned along the way and how do you plan to make empathy front and center?
Jennifer: My life has been enriched in innumerable ways by the opportunity I had to raise my first two kids. But I was so young with my first two that I made a lot of parenting mistakes. I wanted them to be good at things and so I put them into activities that I didn’t get to do as a kid. That was more about me than about them, and they resented the push. They also didn’t want me to be hovering around so much. I certainly overscheduled them at too young of an age. I saw them as a reflection of me, so if they would misbehave or if they weren’t trying their best, I would get really invested and upset.
Now, as a second-time around parent (or whatever time this is), it feels completely different. I don’t care if they get involved with any activities until they get to high school. I’m more interested in who are you as a person and I want to get to know you; it’s not about me molding them into my image of them, it’s about me discovering and supporting the image they have of themselves. I’m sure we•ll do activities, but I want them to take the lead. That’s the difference.
Bob: Your caring and involvement with the lives of children are extraordinary. What’s that been like for you over the years?
Jennifer (long pause): I feel great when the kids I’ve cared for come back and just want to connect with me, with no strings attached. I also feel great when I hear my kids talking in ways or making decisions that reflect my values. When that happens, I feel proud. It takes my sense of connection with them to a whole other level.
Bob: That’s a great description of empathy. There’s no quid pro quo to empathy; there’s just connection and contribution. I’m sure your three new kids are benefiting greatly from the things you•ve learned and the quality of connection you have brought into their lives. Empathy is hard work, but it feels great.
Coaching Inquiries: Where are the relationships of empathy and love in your life? How could they be more fulfilling and mutual? What is the relationship between control and caring in your own family? How could you become more focused on the feelings and needs of others? What changes what you have to make in your own orientations and actions? Who could join you on the journey?
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.
LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..
Your Provision, Empathy As Action, was a perfect Sunday morning message! This is exactly what I am looking at in my life right now. I am enrolled in a 6-month leadership program, the introduction Leaders Program, part of Landmark Education’s life-long curriculum. Thank you for your insights and distinctions as well as referenced materials. I feel more related already.
I agree hole heartedly with your message on empathy. There was a story in the paper about someone named Danielle, a homeless wife with three ill children. The response from the community was amazing. I wonder if the empathy everyone felt was due to the name Danielle being put in the spotlight; we can help only if there is a picture in our mind of someone to help….not just any druggie, wino or deadbeat begging for a buck….someone that could help themselves, not someone that is a victim. It’s too bad we cannot have that same reply for anonymous someones who have been abused, starved, ill or simply deserve a second chance.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
Address: 121 Will Scarlet Lane, Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043
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Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
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