We were at our tables that looked like wood but really just had a wood pattern painted on a plastic cover. We sat on the accompanying plastic blue chairs that had bright green tennis balls stuck on all four legs. We had our hands folded and we were quiet because none of us wanted to get in trouble like Clyde did earlier for talking over the teacher. We were listening to the morning announcements.
“…and finally, the word of the week is ‘Courtesy,’” the voice echoing through the loudspeaker declared.
Boy, was this word a gift to our kindergarten curriculum. We spent the better portion of the day defining courtesy and coming up with examples of how we could be “courteous” to our fellows. We ended the day with a rousing rendition of the golden rule song:
You’ve gotta treat others the way you want to be treated!
Louder and louder we sang it, until the teachers, beaming broadly, dismissed us for the afternoon.
Later that day, over my usual afternoon snack of ants on a log (with the ants picked off because raisins are disgusting), I shared my new vocabulary with my mother. She was just as proud as my teachers that I had learned such a valuable lesson. The thing was, even though I was probably more determined than the average kindergartener to apply what I knew, I don’t think I actually learned the lesson at all. Across all the kindergartens in the nation who received similar lessons, most of them probably didn’t learn it either.
We didn’t learn courtesy because nobody told us why it was important. Well, maybe they did. Maybe they took it as far as kindergarteners could handle. But there was no way that they could teach us to be courteous while we sat comfortably on the brightly colored rug that covered the classroom. There was no way that we would realize the significance of the song we were singing as we belted our souls out (in fact I was confused as to whether the word was “treed” or “treat”). In part this was because the teachers did not want to be responsible for child abuse. That is, they didn’t force us to undergo the anger, the shame, the rejection and everything else that can potentially accompany an interaction that is not “courteous.” That would come later, and it is something that each person must go through individually.
And once we do get a sense of life without courtesy, that would be a great time for the courtesy lesson. Since we do not, nor do we normally talk about our emotions at that point, our negative experiences are not sufficient to each us courtesy. Often, we feel bitter instead. If we cannot always elicit pleasant interactions, then why should we be pleasant ourselves? If we are snapped at, we snap at others. We gradually learn to warp the golden rule to our liking: treat others the way you are treated.
This is the start to our gradual rejection of empathy.
There was another lesson that was taught to me in kindergarten, and it is one that I learned far better. “You are special,” they said. There was no need to experience anything unpleasant in order to believe and adopt this motto. I saw it in the way that teachers glowed when I answered their questions. I saw it in the way that my parents praised me for even the most mundane accomplishments. I saw it in the way that all adults listened with rapt attention to the tedious (and endless) details of my daily life.
Not everyone was as lucky as I was in terms of having support as a child, (not to mention a sickening amount of privilege), however, I believe that most people who grow up in a western world would have little trouble believing in their “specialness.” On some level, we all believe we are the best. Think about it.
Modesty aside, have you ever found yourself shocked that a coworker was promoted before you were (assuming you are hardworking)? Have you ever been incredulous that an ex could ever be in a happy relationship without you? Have you ever been blindsided by a rejection from a job at which you had a good interview? And who among us has never been at least a tiny bit genuinely disappointed by a losing lottery or raffle ticket?
These feelings arise in part because we feel we are the exception. If our employer/potential employer/ex only knew how special we were, they would never treat us in that fashion. And sure, everyone loses the lottery, but we are not everyone.**
Our belief in our uniqueness can manifest itself in selfishness—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. How could the human race have survived as long as it did if everyone didn’t believe that their own lives were special? Ok, so that’s not exactly part of the science of evolution, but somehow we retained our sense of self-centeredness. Even now, some would say a little narcissism is essential to a strong sense self-confidence and self-worth.
Too much of a good thing, as they say, can be detrimental. Sometimes, our sense of entitlement dwarfs our ability to even lend an ear to another being who does not share our values. When this happens, we let the idea of empathy slip even further from our grasp.
Our lives are peppered with aphorisms regarding how we should think and behave, yet because of the two kindergarten lessons, one forgotten and one learned too well, we rarely heed their advice. We repeat the golden rule to others, we say “be kind to your neighbor,” “donate to the poor,” “put yourself in his shoes,” “be generous in spirit.” While some of us strive to embody these things, most of us brush them off as trite remarks. We’ve lost our empathy.
Regaining our sense of empathy is not going to be easy. Everybody knows what empathy is, but nobody knows how to instill it as a value. Teachers show countless movies of life in other countries, they assign books which detail the lives of people around the world, and they even organize events to promote cultural diversity. So the kid watches wide-eyed as he sees a documentary of a remote African tribe. He looks on with some interest as turns the pages of the book in which a young girl fights her parents in order to get an education. He even eagerly cooks chana masala to bring to an all-American celebration of Diwali. These actions make the teachers proud, but do little to teach.
To the child, the people on the show and in the books are merely characters, and the events the child attends are simply a brief form of entertainment. Certainly there are not real people who live in other countries and regularly celebrate these festivals? To a child of the western world, there exists only one culture: the one he/she experiences. In fact, to a child, what he or she sees is all-encompassing (ok, again not science, but what child do you know of who does not believe that the world revolves around him or her?). Teachers, friends, classmates and relatives don’t exist apart from when they are within sight of that child. It is difficult to convince the child that he or she is not the center of the universe (it may be for this reason that we all at one point suspect that we are the star of the Truman Show).
As we grow older, if we still have not learned the lesson of empathy, our childish beliefs remain with us but morph into a more dangerous form. Certainly we believe in the existence of lives outside ours, but we still have a hard time accepting evidence that conflicts with our own experience. Say studies show that 80% of doctors over prescribe antibiotics (note: I made up this number, but if you look up antibiotic resistance, you may find that this number is not so unbelievable). What if you have a doctor who is very cautious and has never prescribed you antibiotics without first confirming the presence of bacteria? You might then doubt that the 80% number is quite so high.
It is much easier to believe in anecdotes than believe in numbers that come from an impersonal journal article. This phenomenon that allows us to put more stock in our personal memories and beliefs makes it even easier to ignore the nagging need for worldwide empathy. Essentially: if a tree falls in a forest and I’m not around to hear it, does it make a sound?
From our lack of understanding stem many of the issues we know well. We see rage from the minority communities who continue to beg for others to step outside their privilege. We hear cries of desperation from women who just want others to understand that relinquishing control over their own bodies and their potential children’s futures is unacceptable. We see hopelessness from immigrants who know that they would be automatically in the 68th percentile of wealth around the world simply by being in America (read The Haves and the Have Nots). We see desperation from the Syrian refugees who are simply trying to survive and cannot convince the Americans otherwise. We see the indignation from the victims of mass shootings who plead with second-amendment supporters to allow for stricter gun regulations. And that’s just a few of the problems that we see domestically.
Sometimes, we do have the good fortune to learn that other people really are people. Everyone learns it differently and at their own pace (my lesson was particularly slow: https://sicklysaltysweet.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/thoughts-on-a-good-childhood/ ). Some learn it all at once, and some learn it gradually over time (my new favorite story: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/23/conversion-via-twitter-westboro-baptist-church-megan-phelps-roper. If she can do it, we all can). All we know is that we can learn it. We see examples of it all the time. The media insists on reporting the cruelty around the world, yet if you do some research, you can see that the number of charities far outstrips the number of, say, terrorist organizations.
Once empathy is learned, the battle is still not over: the principle can be forgotten. I thought I knew empathy, yet I still do not give to beggars on the streets and I often clutch my purse tighter as I pass. I press “No,” on the keypad asking if I want to donate to St. Jude’s without even thinking. I choose to sleep in rather than to get up early and help organize a food drive. I suggest eating out to a group of friends, including one who is too timid to say he cannot really afford it. I am guilty of hundreds, maybe even thousands of transgressions such as these. As is every human. It is difficult indeed to override the need to look out for number one.
But we’ve got to keep trying. At least let’s do something before Donald Trump convinces us all that the immigrants are evil aliens who would derive pleasure from taking over our jobs and killing us all in a massive terror attack.
**More demonstration of the fact that we know ourselves to be special:
Consider this: you go to a restaurant, and when you ask for sauce on the side, the waiter lashes out impatiently at you. The next time your friends suggest that restaurant, you say you’d rather not go there because of the angry waiter.
But what if you’re that waiter? For you, the story starts long before you ever encountered any customers. You were up the whole night because your grandmother is in poor health and you were tending to her. You picked up an extra shift at work because you could use more money. You get to work early, only to find out that your manager will be cutting your hours for the week. You are so sleep deprived, you mix up a customer’s order and she complains angrily and refuses to tip you. In the kitchen, you accidentally knock over a jar of spices and receive a verbal thrashing from the head cook, who makes you get down on your hands and knees to clean it up. By the time you get to the customer who wants their Teriyaki chicken with the Teriyaki sauce on the side (who does that??), it’s no wonder you’re close to your breaking point. The customer calls you an “angry waiter,” but you know differently. You’re a nice person who was in a stressful situation. Due to unfortunate circumstances, you acted in an angry manner.
This is what social psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” Any negative trait you see in others becomes an inherent qualtiy of how they “are.” Yet, if you are seen to be exhibiting that same negative trait, you explain that it was because of the circumstances of your behavior. Once again, you are special.