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Can empathy be taught? I asked myself this question when I read about a new program instituted in certain suburban high schools to combat bullying and harassment among young people, both of which are apparently on the rise. Instead of merely being shunned by the mean girls or humiliated by the bad boys – bad enough when you’re in puberty – you can have your mind messed with, your reputation utterly ruined and your family stalked and also humiliated via text, Twitter and on any number of social networking sites.  There have been reactions that have made the news (high school shooters and MySpace suicides) and many more that haven’t.

We accept that some people are more empathetic than others, that women are generally (although not always) more empathetic than men, that the whole concept of relating to one’s fellow person simply comes more easily to some than to others. Michelle Obama is scoring high points for being so genuinely interested in the people she meets. Her husband’s empathy quotient is harder to read even by those who support his agenda but he is connecting on some level. Dogs are supposed to be highly empathetic creatures although they are also into their version of self-preservation. I adore my dog but I’m not sure she cares whether I’m having a bad day if she wants to be fed right at that moment.

When I first heard Bill Clinton exclaim: “I feel your pain” I was a little taken aback. What pain was he able to feel, I wondered. The shock of a young man diagnosed with a fast-acting terminal disease? The anxiety of a family on a downward economic slide? The fear of woman on the run for her life in the middle of the latest ethnic warfare? What kind of pain were we talking about here?

I sense what Clinton was saying: I can empathize. Whether and how this affected his style of governance is something I’ll set aside for now. But he somehow engaged in the task of putting himself in someone else’s shoes of trying to sense how they might feel.

Of course he couldn’t have literally known what it might be like to fully experience living someone else’s life unless he were living it. We can’t know what its like to be living in Gaza or in a refugee camp in Darfur or even as a high-schooler with a lisp or a limp or an odd way of relating to people unless we’re in the moment. Even then, people react differently depending on their emotional makeup. We’re all unique that way, which makes this whole business of relating somehow trickier.  I can’t tell you how many people said after my husband was killed on 9/11, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Some of my angrier friends who had lost loved ones used to retort, “No, you can’t.” I’d only say, “You don’t have to.”

The fact is: you don’t have to imagine the specifics of a horrible or difficult situation or the origins of the anger, fear another person is experiencing because, frankly, what purpose would it serve? Instead, you might recognize the sorts of feelings and impulses a person in such a situation might have; somewhere along the line, we’ve all had similar feelings. You base or adjust your actions and words to take those feelings into consideration, so that you do no harm. There’s compassion involved and also a willful putting aside of your own interests and desires, even if you can never truly understand what it might be like to feel like an outcast or feel threatened or feel terror. Then there’s the whole idea that you might be able to modify your behavior in a more sympathetic manner. It seems like a lot of work, more like empathy isn’t “just” a feeling but also a way of thinking. Which means, yeah, it could be taught and we’re all probably due for a refresher course.

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