Broadening Empathy to Learn to Love

When I first sat down to write this piece I pounded out something, well. . . lets’ just say it wasn’t very good, about how having a college education can influence your parenting.  I don’t think I’m wrong, going to college or any other major life decision can impact your parenting style. But I think the piece that really needs to get out of me is a little broader than that. I just needed some direction from my friend (and our incredible editor-in-chief) to fully realize that.

So here we are, take two, regarding having an open mind to learning and how it can impact your relationships. I’m talking about your relationships with your partner, with your children, and with really everyone around you.

In the last semester of my undergraduate degree, I had an experience that still stands out to me today as one of the most valuable learning experiences I’ve ever had. I was in class and we were talking about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and an example of an extremely unethical study. The short of it is, the U.S. Government studied the effects of untreated syphilis on roughly 400 Black men for roughly 40 years. These men remained untreated, even after a cure for syphilis was found, and none of the men were ever informed they had syphilis.

To put it mildly, it was a particularly terrible story in the book of man’s inhumanity to man.

My professor asked why something like this would have been allowed to happen.  After several minutes of nobody saying anything I finally raised my hand and said: “Unfortunately, at that time, Black people were not seen as fully human.”

What a Black man, who was hard of hearing, in my class heard was “Black people are not fully human.” He, justifiably (given what he thought I said) came after me with everything he had. To say I was mortified was an understatement. I was also grateful as my classmates (and professor) came to my defense explaining what I had actually said. This was an incredible learning experience for me. Not only did I gain a fuller understanding of race relations in the United States, it allowed me to experience a level of empathy that I had not realized was necessary when interacting with people who have a background different from my own.

I had this experience in college, but to say that college is the only place to learn empathy is completely ridiculous. While many of us are naturally empathetic, having an attitude where you continue to be willing to learn helps you broaden your ability to empathize with others and understand their perspective.

Having empathy makes me a better wife because I can understand what Nateanite is going through. I can follow the scriptural commandment to “mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.”

Empathy makes me a better mother because, rather than being frustrated by Electrics’ regular outbursts (she is 3, after all) I have a better ability to understand why she might be trying to bite my leg.

Empathy makes me a better friend because I can understand the perspective of my friends when they are excited or sad.

My friend, Kathleda, works with a company that handles rebates for larger companies. Hearkening back to my point about empathy I have to say, if you’re frustrated with the rebate process please don’t take it out on the person you’re talking to. But I am actually talking about Kathleda because one thing she regularly comments on is that some of her colleagues are not teachable. They struggle to find the answers on their own, despite the resources being right at their fingertips. In an environment where new clients, new promotions, and new information is the only constant being teachable is critical for success. The area my friend lives in is an area where education often takes a back burner to getting a job. This short-sighted approach ignores the fact that being willing to learn is necessary to keeping the job you have.

The relationship you have today is not the relationship you will have tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, or ten years from now. Being teachable means that your relationships will continue to edify you and others. In my opinion, the ability to learn is the difference between a happy couple and an unhappy couple. Being able to learn means you understand that while your kids may be getting up at all hours now, they aren’t always going to do that and you won’t always be so tired. Being able to learn means that you know to give you friend some space if she’s working through something.

What can you do to encourage a love of learning in the lives of those around you? Of course, we can’t all do this, but spending the early part of my childhood near a university while my dad got his Ph.D. had a profound effect on me.  For others, it might mean going to the library every week to get a new stack of books (and if your kids are anything like mine that might also mean preserving your sanity). For others, it might mean looking past your recommended videos on Netflix and picking something you might otherwise have ignored.

Those are my suggestions. How do you foster a love of learning in your homes? Have you seen how being willing to learn has made an impact in your life?

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Rachel Hanson

Rachel is a blogger who writes predominantly about parenting and ways to juggle “having it all,” even though she thinks that phrase is overblown and generally impossible. She also thinks that time management and cutting yourself a little (or a lot of) slack are key to managing all the pieces of your life. Rachel and Nateanite have been married since 2010 and they have two daughters. Electric is three years old and Adorable is 10 months old. You can visit her online home “My Mother Told Me”, see who she’s engaging with Facebook, check out what she’s reading on Twitter, or see her body of work on LinkedIn.

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