The Great Need For Empathy

“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18).

I have been feeling so much lately an urgency for us to prepare the way for our Savior’s return. Obviously that means a hastening of His work — spreading the gospel, redeeming the dead, strengthening the saints. But there’s another aspect that I can’t get out of my head. I feel it is of vital importance. We must heal and prepare our hearts. (Or rather, allow the Savior to do that for us.) We must experience a shift in our thinking and feeling about ourselves and all those around us. We must begin to become a Zion society.

A Zion society lives by attributes such as purity, service, consecration, charity, and unity. Everyone freely gives of their means and time to bless and help each other. Everyone understands one another and all are unified in truth and righteousness. And most significantly, everyone in a Zion society chooses to live this way, rather than being coerced by men and governments to do so. This kind of sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? We know that we must become a Zion people before we will be able to dwell in the Celestial kingdom, but I used to think that this would just kind of happen. I now understand that, while we will perfect this way of living and becoming during the millennium, this is something we must be consciously working toward now. During the millennium, “because of the righteousness of [God’s] people, Satan has no power…over the hearts of the people” (see 1 Nephi 22:26). But we won’t just automatically be that righteous. We must become the type of people that Satan has no power over.

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It can be kind of discouraging to look around and see how far the world is from the principles of a Zion society, even among some members of the church. If you need proof, just bring up politics in a social setting, or spend a while on Facebook or other internet forums, or take a drive during rush hour traffic. It’s rare to see diplomacy, respect for differing beliefs, consideration, unity, or charity. It’s not surprising that the majority of the world rejects the principles of Zion — Babylon (the world) has always existed in opposition to Zion. But it’s all too easy for us as members of the Lord’s church to get caught up in the ways of Babylon as well.

I think we all know that we need to avoid being of the world, and I think we all understand why worldliness is not God’s way. So I’m not going to try to convince anyone of these things. I don’t think that’s as helpful as offering possible solutions to combat the selfishness and pride that prevails around (and perhaps in) us. I prefer to focus on what we can do to become a Zion society. There are several wonderful talks and articles on lds.org that offer specific counsel in this regard. I am going to offer just one principle that we can focus on: empathy.

Empathy can be defined as seeing and feeling from another’s perspective — putting ourselves in their shoes and feeling with them.

Why is empathy a key to establishing a Zion society? If we have empathy, we notice others’ feelings and needs, and we care enough to help them. We will be less self-absorbed and more willing to give of our time and means, so that there are no poor among us. If we have empathy, we acknowledge others’ experiences, paradigms, and opinions, and we respectfully find common ground. There will be less criticism, gossip, offense, and enmity, and more understanding and unity. I read a great article on Psychology Today’s website entitled Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder? It talks about this very issue, particularly about a lack of empathy for those who think and believe differently from us. It also goes into brain science a bit and how our brains are hard-wired for empathy and can be re-trained to respond with empathy. Definitely check it out.

Why are we (as a society) lacking in empathy? The article above suggests that it’s a preoccupation with things — money, possessions, status. I certainly think this is a problem, but I think that lack of empathy begins much earlier in life.

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The foundation for empathy development begins in infancy as parents respond appropriately, quickly and lovingly to their babies’ cries and their needs (fyi, parents consistently soothing their babies is what actually leads to those children’s eventual self-soothing, and also models the way to selflessly respond to other’s needs). For the last few generations there has been more and more advice leading parents to ignore their innate instincts and their babies’ cues, to the point that this is now the cultural norm in most developed areas of the world. “Don’t hold your baby too much or you’ll spoil him.” “Let her cry — she has to learn.” “Don’t ever rock or nurse your baby to sleep unless you want to create bad habits that you’ll never be able to break.” All of this advice is conflicting for many parents and causes unnecessary stress. But fear leads most parents to continue the trend of listening to the world’s advice rather than trusting their God-given instincts and listening to their babies. Because of this trend, many of us may not have had totally secure attachments with our own parents, which has lasting effects — not only for us, but for future generations, because, unless we intentionally reflect on our own childhoods and choose to heal unhealthy patterns, we are likely to repeat them.

Moving past infancy we are met with big, strong emotions in toddlerhood. We are conditioned to believe that tantrums and meltdowns are bad behavior or our child’s way of manipulating us, when in reality they are nature’s built-in release valve for all of those big and overwhelming feelings. Toddlers’ brains are still quite under-developed and they are incapable of reasoning through their upsets on their own the way adults are (and even though we are more capable, how often do we react inappropriately when we’re upset??). Adults are their babies’ and toddlers’ emotional regulators until they are capable of that job on their own. Due to this misguided belief about big feelings, most of us probably were not encouraged as children to feel however we felt, and to process those emotions in a healthy way. (I’ve become hyper-aware of the countless times I hear adults telling children to stop crying.) Most of us probably grew up repressing our big emotions, and still do so today, until they manifest in other (uncontrolled and unhealthy) ways when we’re triggered, and we say and do things we wouldn’t otherwise (or perhaps we just shut down emotionally, which harms our relationships). Maybe some of us have a chip on our shoulder because we were never understood, and so we feel like hurting other people back.

And so it continues through childhood and adolescence — society tells us that it is a parent’s job to control their children, and if they don’t, those kids will be unruly and out of control and selfish and entitled. So rather than learning cooperation and problem-solving skills and mutual respect and empathy, kids learn to do the right things for the wrong reasons (fear of being punished or to gain some external reward), at least when there’s a chance they might get caught. Being raised with fear, threats, control and punishment results in disconnection and external motivation. In other words, many people never really develop much of a conscience, self-discipline, concern for others, or a sincere desire to do good for the sake of doing good. See this post for more effective discipline.

“Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions not retribution.” -L.R. Knost

Going back to our society’s obsession with material things, I have to wonder how much of that is a misguided attempt to fill some deep unmet emotional needs?

So then, how do we increase empathy in the world, and in so doing, establish Zion?

Very first, I believe we need to overwhelm our own hearts and souls with self-love, acceptance and compassion. We need to embrace every part of ourselves — even the not-so-great parts — and show ourselves gentleness and compassion. Accept every emotion by simply allowing it to be there without judgment and without using it to hurt anyone. The emotion itself is just a message. Let it be heard and felt. We can reflect on our own childhoods and lives and determine where our beliefs have come from and whether they are true and serving us well or not. We can change our understanding and perspective if we need to. And we can always turn to the Savior to heal us.

From there I believe that Zion begins in our individual homes, with the way we treat one another, and how we teach our children to treat one another. Modeling empathy for our children, particularly by empathizing with them, but also in our interactions with others, teaches them how to empathize with others as well. The home is the perfect training ground to develop character and Christlike attributes. The more parents teach their children empathy, the better off the whole world will be.

We can start by listening to our instincts and intuition that tell us to hold our babies and respond lovingly to their emotional needs (which are deeply real needs).

We can start by accepting all of our child’s emotions, and empathizing with them (even when we need to set limits on their behavior). Resist the urge to stop the crying or to jump to teaching any lessons. You don’t have to fix anything. Just acknowledge their point of view and empathize: “You really wish you could keep playing and you’re disappointed that we have to go home now.” (Then once everyone is calm, you can do your teaching if you need to. Your child will be more open to your teaching once they’ve been heard and understood anyway.) Resisting the urge to stop the crying or fix the problem also builds resilience and shows children that they are capable of handling uncomfortable emotions.

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We can become more present in our lives and focus on people rather than things. People always remember how we made them feel, and children in particular are influenced and shaped by this.

“What is most important almost always involves the people around us.” -Thomas S. Monson

“To you who are parents, I say, show love to your children. You know you love them, but make certain they know it as well. They are so precious. Let them know.” -Thomas S. Monson

While empathy in and of itself is vitally important, I also believe that it is preparatory to a higher law — that of charity. If empathy can be defined as seeing and feeling from another’s perspective, then charity can be defined as seeing and feeling for someone from the Lord’s perspective. I believe that the more we practice empathy (stepping out of our own shoes and problems or whatever we’re preoccupied with at the moment, and really seeing and feeling about a situation the way the other person does), the easier it will be for us to see others as the Lord sees them, and to feel about them accordingly. Charity is a gift from God, but we can prepare ourselves to receive that gift by practicing empathy and by living the gospel the best we can. Then once we are each filled with the pure love of Christ, creating Zion will be second nature to us. The two great commandments, loving God first and our neighbor second, takes care of all the other commandments. Let us put God first, practice empathy, and pray for charity.

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Why We Should Be More Concerned With Winning Our Children’s Hearts Than Controlling Their Behavior

What is a “good kid?” I’ve observed that if our kids are well-behaved champion sleepers, we are seen as good parents and our children are seen as good kids. So should we focus on controlling our children’s behavior and making them do what we want them to do? Or is there more to the story?

I was a “good kid” growing up. I have the type of personality that is more naturally compliant. I want to please people and keep everyone happy. I don’t like contention or confrontation, and I really hate feeling like people are upset with me or that I’ve done something wrong. Because of my temperament and personality, fear and threats and control “worked” pretty well on me growing up (meaning that I was obedient). And sure, I have turned out pretty well — I try my very best to make good choices for the right reasons. But I have had a lot of healing that I’ve had to do to get to where I am, as well as learning to find my voice and stand for what I feel is right regardless of others’ opinions. Not everyone will take the initiative or know how to achieve that healing, which might mean that their ability to find their voice and feel good about themselves, and to form strong and healthy relationships, is affected perhaps for the rest of their lives. I have seen this first-hand in my own family.

What’s more, kids who are more strong-willed tend to push back pretty hard against force and control, and if these children feel forced or pushed into doing the right thing, they may choose not make the best choices once they’re out from under the control and threats of their parents (if the fear and control even “work” on them to begin with). I know several families, including mine, that had at least one very strict (authoritarian) parent, that have at least one child who has pushed back hard as a teenager or young adult, to the point of leaving the church and the gospel teachings they were raised with. Now, obviously, all sorts of parents have children who fall away from the church, not just the very strict ones who used force with their kids. And all types of people lose their way, not just the strong-willed ones. But my point is that fear and control always have negative results in relationships, whether it’s psychological damage or power struggles and push-back. Force and fear do not lead to strong and attached relationships, which are crucial if we want to have a healthy, positive influence in our children’s lives, to lead and guide them down correct paths.

Rather than just raising “good” kids who are well-behaved (well-behaved children do not equal good children — all children are inherently good), I want to raise people who make good choices because they want to — because the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ are rooted deep in their hearts. I don’t believe that force and fear will accomplish that.

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President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “[God] wants to change more than just our behaviors. He wants to change our very natures. He wants to change our hearts” (see his full talk here). That is what I want for my children too. How do we accomplish that?

Alma 31:5 reads, “And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God” (emphasis added). Teaching the truths of God is far more effective than fear or control.

But I think it goes a step further. For instance, teaching gospel truths with an attitude of self-righteousness or condescension will probably not have the right effect, even if the things we’re teaching are totally true. In Alma 17:29 we read that Ammon sought to win the hearts of the servants of King Lamoni, to earn their trust, that he might teach them and have them listen. So not only did he teach them the gospel, he understood the importance of gaining their trust and winning their hearts first. I believe there is a great lesson here for us.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On to Your Kids, said, “You cannot parent a child whose heart you do not have.” He says that if our children don’t give their hearts to us, and so we use some other means of training them instead of guiding their hearts, we can usually get them to act mature and responsible, but that doesn’t mean they feel responsibility and maturity. And normally when someone acts as if they feel a certain way but doesn’t truly feel that way, we call them hypocrites. They don’t have integrity. Continuing on, Dr. Neufeld says that as a society we seem to be “more interested in behavioral outcomes than true growth.” True growth comes when our hearts are involved. Love and connection and attachment are vital. Watch the full presentation by Dr. Neufeld here.

It is eternally important for us to make good choices and keep the commandments. But President Uchtdorf has explained that the reason for our obedience to God’s commandments isn’t to earn our salvation, or to earn anything, but rather, “we obey the commandments of God–out of love for Him!” And why do we love Him? “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and we feel that love so strongly, so surely. So if we want our children to follow us and obey us, then they must feel our love as well.

“Show love to your children. You know you love them, but make certain they know it as well” (emphasis added). –President Thomas S. Monson

It is not enough just to love our children — if they don’t feel our love, if they don’t feel that they are important to us and cherished by us, then we won’t have the kind of influence with them that we need. But once they give us their hearts, we will be more readily able to lead them back to our Heavenly Father.

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So what can we do to win our children’s hearts? Well, what makes you feel cherished by someone? Is it when they really listen to you? When they’re affectionate toward you? When they smile at you with their eyes and hearts and not just their lips? When they laugh with you? When they give you their time and their full attention? Is it when they do something thoughtful for you? When they show you compassion and empathy through your struggles? When they speak to you calmly and kindly and respectfully, even when you know they’re frustrated? Or when they truly see you, truly know you — faults and all — and adore you anyway?

Whatever helps your child to feel that you cherish them, do more of that. Then do your best to be the kind of person you want them to be, and they will surely follow suit.