Empathy not Sympathy

CCBC BookNews Winter 2022/23

I really connected with Spencer Miller’s article in CCBC’s (Canadian Children’s Book Centre) about empathy. In the article called, “Teaching Empathy Through Reading,” the middle grade teacher shares specific ways to build up a young person’s empathy. 

What is empathy?  Empathy according to Brené Brown (whom Miller quotes in this article): “…fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” To have empathy, means to understand. To understand, means to get under something, not over. To understand means to be humble, to crouch down and see the situation eye-to-eye. Sympathy, like pity, can lead to disrespect and moral judgment.

I wrote Tainted Amber in an attempt to understand what was happening in East Prussia, in Katya’s world, back in 1937. I tried to develop reader empathy for citizens in the Third Reich who were being manipulated by an authoritarian government (eerie parallels to current Russian situation). In Crow Stone I tried to develop empathy for people who, back in 1945, were possibly the most hated people on earth. 

As a volunteer, working one-on-one with newcomers to Canada, I’m grateful for the opportunity to connect, to support, and to try to understand. There’s nothing like a real person to help me understand the, often nuanced, joys and terrors of our tumultuous world. I have much to learn.

Empathy involves taking down the border that divides ‘me’ from ‘you.’ Empathy means you are you walking beside me like a friend. It can be emotionally exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, and always empowering. 

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