Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The roots of empathy

I remember reading that it is right around the age Sam is now that kids start to develop empathy. Wikipedia (which is never wrong) states: Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion.

There is such a journey that kids have to go through to get to empathy, and eventually compassion. When we think about that journey from an infant who, at least it seems, has no concern for others in their need for sleep, love, attention, and food, to a full-grown adult who (hopefully) is able to feel what others feel and act on those feelings, that path is pretty extraordinary and full of pitfalls.

I think every parent of every normally developing child wonders at least briefly if their beloved offspring is some kind of sociopath. And yeah, they sort of all are. Sociopathy is defined by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotions, egocentricity, and deceptiveness. If this doesn't describe all two and three year olds to a tee sometimes, I don't know what does.

Both of my children have always been sympathetic. Both have peppered their pretend play with dolls getting hurt with the attending "awwws" of sympathy as they are getting their band-aid. And I'll never forget soon after Sam was born when I had a full-on meltdown while he was crying, and he looked at me as if he understood that we were both so sad at that moment, that I was feeling what he was feeling. Being able to recognize feelings in others, simply that others have feelings, is important, but not the end of the path.

We were at the Museum of Flight last weekend when I saw this particular corner start to turn with Sam. We'd sat in the dark theatre to watch a movie about exploration of Mars (Sam is obsessed with space and space travel right now), and the film started with a brief piece about the first Mars rover, Spirit. Several scientists talked about its construction and launch, the hopes they had for it, how had exceeded those hopes, and how much the project had meant to them personally. The section ended by highlighting Spirit's last transmission before it died, and then there was a retrospective of pictures that it had sent to earth with some rather moving music. I glanced over at Sam to see what he thought, and he was tearing up. I asked him what was wrong, and he looked up at me with his tear filled eyes and said,

"It travelled so far, Mommy. And now it's all by itself."

I never thought that seeing Sam be moved to tears would involve a robot, but I'll be darned if that's the first surprise I've gotten during this whole parenting deal. I reached over and grabbed his little hand, and he squeezed it tight. We watched the rest of the movie together that way, and when it was over he said with determination,

"When I grow up, I'm going to be a scientist and go to Mars and go get it."

Oh, son, I love that you love that little lost spaceship, and that you imagine that it's lonely and scared out there on the red planet. Not only that, but that you are actually feeling yourself what you imagine it is feeling, and I love that you want to grow up and go get it and make sure that it's ok. I love that that part of your heart and mind is starting to open.

I'll need to keep in mind, though, that empathy can be a blessing but it can also be a heavy burden, especially when you're not used to it. Things get tougher in a lot of ways from here on out. Feeling what other people feel can be overwhelming. I'll do my best to help you navigate all of these new feelings as they come up, and to let you know that what you feel is ok and good. And I'll do my best to model it for you.


Claudia said...

Love your posts, Kate. That one made me tear up a bit myself. :)

Laura said...

Love this, Kate. What a sweet little guy you have!