Empathy December 4, 2014

This post was written the week that a New York Grand Jury decided not to indict an NYPD officer in the death of Eric Garner, leading to nationwide protests and a flurry of  divisive social media posts.

I have been thinking a great deal this week about my first year of my social work master’s program. As incoming students, we were asked to fill out a skill and interest form to help match us with our academic year field placement. I was horrified when I received a letter halfway through the summer letting me know that I had been placed with a mental health unit in the Philadelphia County Jail System. I actually thought that it was a clerical error, and called the school because I was sure there was some incoming student who had wanted to be in placed in the prison system who was equally upset that they had been placed in AIDS agency. I was stunned when the Field Placement Director told me that there had been no mistake and that I had been placed in the prison system because they thought it was a “reasonable” fit.

I called my future field instructor to try to explain why this placement was a bad idea for both me and the clients. He listened to me patiently and suggested that I come down from Boston to visit before making any final decisions about accepting the placement. When we finally met in person, I asked him, “what can I possibly do to help this group of clients as a social work intern?” He told me that I could empathize. That my job in the prison as a social work intern would be to see the humanness of the prisoners and develop and show empathy for them. At the time I didn’t really understand what that was going to mean, but his words stayed with me and I decided to participate in the field placement as assigned.

Every time that I was unsure and felt completely out of my element or over my head, and at times, even scared, I thought about Nick’s words and I tried to see the humanness of the men sitting in my office. It was life-changing, both personally and professionally. I learned as much about myself as I learned about the prisoners I was working with. I chose not to stay working in the prison system when it came time to select my second year placement, but the lesson that empathy is actually a process, hard work, something that you have to nurture and develop but is so critical in helping us connect with another’s experience and express our own humanness has stayed with me all these years.

Empathy requires actively looking for, and acknowledging, similarities between our self and someone else, even when we perceive ourselves as radically different from each other. Empathy can demand seeing and accepting parts of our self in someone else that we might not be like or be proud of. Empathy can require experiencing another’s feelings, including pain, in ways that are not comfortable or easy.

I thought of that conversation with Nick many times when my family joined a Quaker educational community and we were introduced to the Quaker value of “There is that of God in all of us.” I sincerely hope that all of us embrace the lesson that there is that of God in all of us as we process the events in the world around us this week. To work actively to see God, that humanness, in each other is no less than any of our neighbors, family and friends deserve. It is no less than what we deserve in return.

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