My Year of Radical Empathy

Rosh Hashanah Remarks 2021 || 5782

How do we boil down the year that’s been?

That’s a question I’ve kept close to my heart for many months now.  The type A organizer in me wants to be able to box up the year and put it on a shelf.  It was THIS, THAT is what I learned, and NOW we move forward!

Of course, this has never been the nature of life, and I’m of the personal belief that we learn more from messy discomfort than we do from perfection.  And yet, I am still trying to wrap it all up in a bow.  So what’s an analytical gal to do?

My answer, for today, is in a single concept – the hypothetical answer to all of my conundrums and challenges.  Consider this your formal invitation to join me, Adena Kirstein, in my year of radical EMPATHY.

To consider such a year perhaps calls first on a shared definition of what empathy is.  One needs to look no further than the Rosh Hashanah liturgy to find the story of Ishmael.  The text notes that “God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”

This act reminds me of the fundamentals of empathy.  G/d does two things, hopefully inspiring us to do the same. First, G/d HEARS the cry of the boy.  For empathy we must listen – often easier said than done, when we feel the immediate need to add our two cents to any given moment.  But secondly in the text, it is noted WHERE HE IS.  Empathy demands us not to just take note of what WE hear but to consider where the OTHER truly stands.  We all know that while we may sometimes share the same physical space with one another, our minds and hearts may be very far apart.  

I don’t know where this empathy-laden path of mine began, but an early marker came last spring as violence raged in Gaza and Israel.  The Washington Post shared an extensive email exchange between an Israeli and Palestinian, where they wrote back and forth to explore a simple question – what did they make of this moment?  I was captivated, not by the answers but by the attempt at listening to one another, understanding where the other was, an act of radical empathy.  They bonded over shared parenthood, over the anger they chose to not impart upon their children, and ruminated on a quote from a Yehuda Amichai poem:

‘From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow.’

We live in a society that so prizes being RIGHT.  On Instagram and cable news, everyone is right!  They are right about Israel/Palestine, right about vaccines, right about mask mandates.  They are right about climate change, right about how to solve the problems of Afghanistan and right about women’s rights.

But in my heart, is my highest priority being right?  Being right is lovely but more deeply, I want to watch flowers grow – taking in the world, learning new things, growing in the process.  Being right feels finite but growth is forever.  It’s what I want for my children and it’s what I want for all of you.

After this Post article,  I started to dig into books, podcasts, conversations about the topic of empathy.  I started to see empathy at work on Ted Lasso and in Ben Platt lyrics, in conversations with student leaders and colleagues at GW.  

I’m learning a lot, three lessons of which I’d like to share with you today.  And I’m also learning that empathy is sometimes, really quite hard.  On my drive home from work this week, rushed to make it there for bedtime, the people in the car in front of me started to throw their trash out the window.  First came their takeout box – maybe it was an accident, I thought?  Then came some napkins – assuredly, not an accident.  Finally, a block later, an empty drink bottle nearly hit my windshield.  

I was ANGRY!  Who do these people think they are?  Screw empathy!  Don’t litter in my neighborhood!  Don’t cause a potential accident with your carelessness!  But I tried to take a deep breath.  Thank you G/d for parents who taught me to treat my neighborhood with lovingkindness.  Thank you G/d for the warm meal waiting for me at home, no takeout box required.  Thank you G/d for the struggle to embrace empathy, for helping me to take a deep breath before I bring my anger home to my kids.

In my humble opinion, empathy serves to provide us with three gifts.

First, it is a powerful driver of change.  We’ve fooled ourselves into believing you get people to change by lecturing them, out-Instagramming them, telling them the ‘correct’ path without understanding their path first.   

I recently read the story of the Rooster Prince, a tale from Rav Nachman of Breslov.  A prince in Eastern Europe, long ago, was being taught by his parents, the King and Queen, how to be princely; what food should he eat, what clothes should he wear, how should he carry himself.  One morning, with no explanation, he started acting like a rooster.  Each day, he would cluck under the kitchen table, waddling around the house.  His parents were shocked and dismayed – this was decidedly NOT princely behavior!  They reprimanded him, bribed him, tried everything they could think of.  At their wit’s end, they called in a great sage who asked for the King and Queen’s trust in solving the problem.

The sage received it and promptly joined the prince under the table.  “Are you happy here?” the sage asked?  The prince replied – ‘Yes. It is good to live the life you want.’  For the first few days together, they simply clucked and waddled together.  But one day, the sage asked the royal seamstress for a pair of pants.  “Just because I’m a rooster doesn’t mean I can’t stay warm, right?,” the sage remarked to the prince.  In the following days, the sage asked for a shirt, shoes, and other earthly comforts.  ‘Why should humans be the only ones who stay warm?’ said the sage.  One day, after the sage had enjoyed a large plate of beautiful food, the prince finally asked for clothes and food of his own.  From that day forward, he returned to life as a human prince.

Change is not linear and it’s sometimes hard to understand.  Certainly, many would hear the story of the rooster prince and feel concerned for this young man’s mental health – and they might be right, using their empathy muscles as they exercise concern.  But few of us would have said – let me act like a rooster, too!  The King and Queen achieved their goal and the Rooster Prince did too.  He didn’t change simply because they were RIGHT or wanted him to – he did so in choosing a life that felt meaningful to him.  A beautiful change process where no one has to lose for the sake of others winning.  The sage’s empathy led to everyone’s gain.

This personal gain around empathy is not to be ignored, a second lesson I keep learning again and again. Anger and the pursuit of always being right can often be a painful and toxic force in our lives.  Think of the last time someone did something to anger you – do you think the car littering in front of me was holding on to the anger that I did?  I am not naïve, and even with oodles of empathy, I still am certain people are making poor choices in the world.  But what can I control?  How I hold on to my own pain and how I can use empathy to heal my own soul.

Over a decade ago, a friend I deeply treasured abruptly stopped talking to me.  She wouldn’t take phone calls or respond to emails, ghosted me when I mailed her a wedding invitation.  To put it simply, I was incredibly angry.  And I brought that anger to all of my other friends, sharing with them how wronged I had been.  What had I done!?  What’s her problem?!  For years, it took up precious space in my brain and in my heart.  

But last week, I got a stunning email.   The friend shared that she had been formulating words for 10 years but never been able to write them.  She had faced deep struggles, had been embarrassed to share them, and had been sorry to leave my life so abruptly.  In this time of Elul and new year reflection, she wanted to try to make things right.

What courage it took her to write that email.  And what time I had wasted, being angry instead of imagining, through a lens of empathy, what might have been going on in her life.  Empathy is good not only for helping to make change, but for helping us to live whole lives – it’s the difference between going to bed with anger in our hearts or with gratitude on our lips, with tension in our shoulders or with a calm in our kishkes. 

Empathy is a driver of change and empathy is a means to live calmer, fuller, wholer lives.  And from these, comes the third and final lesson I’m sitting with this Rosh Hashanah, the power that empathy has to help us process our past and use it for shaping a better future.

One doesn’t need to look much further than this moment to see empathy as an opportunity to look at this past year and move forward.  As I’ve met and re-met students over these past weeks, I’ve tried to grasp what’s happening, psychologically and sociologically.  

Some of you are looking back at the past year with sadness and regret, with a deep sense of loss for time you won’t get back.  That grief is real.  But you can also show empathy to YOURSELF – I did the best I could.  I’m a stronger person because of what I just faced.  My world view, my gratitude for health, my sense of purpose in this world will all be honed because of the Covid experience I just had.  

Others of you seem overwhelmed – it’s weird to be in class.  It’s challenging to be in large groups, with a social tank that feels low.  It’s sad to be without family units after all this intense time together.  All legitimate feelings.  But when empathy is added into the mix, the framing of history changes.  Empathy is grateful for the extra, ‘bonus’ time with those we might have left behind.  Empathy says – I learned so much about how I LEARN, in a classroom, out of a classroom, from people near and far.  

We’re all living through history; may the chapters you now write about the recent past be shaped by the empathy we all have the capacity to hold.

With empathy, just as G/d did with Ishmael, we seek to open our ears and our understanding of where others sit before us.  We take a disagreement – with a roommate or a friend – and we see an opportunity – to speak, to connect, to find a new changed dynamic.  We encounter difference and we reject toxicity, choosing to not let in to our souls the things we cannot control.  And with empathy, we look at the year that’s been, with all its sadness, and we show ourselves grace to use whatever tools the year gave us and start building with them into the future.  

I pray you shape your year with intention.  Try to see the good in others and give them the benefit of the doubt.  Show grace and kindness to yourself.  Lead with radical empathy.

Shana Tovah  

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