The Sacredness of Empathy

8 Jan 2019
ByNigel D. Furlonge, Principal, Upper School

This past break, I was able to do some things I don’t find much time to do when school is in session: connect with close friends who live elsewhere, watch and read the news, go to the movies with my children (I recommend Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse!), and listen to more music. I also found myself thinking about what I’ve witnessed over the past few months in regard to the richness of the ECFS community. Membership in this community is rooted in the notion that we work to recreate the school every day, based on the core tenet that defines our institution: embracing an ethical life.  In listening to national and local news over break, I couldn’t help but think about how important the core value of ethics — framed by morality and empathy — is to the corporate, political, educational, and community leaders of tomorrow and today. Values are easier to say and write about, however, than to live by. Empathy, in particular, is difficult to imagine, measure, and achieve. Empathy pushes us to share in the feelings of another person. An empathetic mind challenges us to know, to understand, and to imagine another person’s belief system. Empathy calls on us to seek an understanding of why a person might believe what they do about the role government should play in our lives. Empathy challenges us to try to know how and why a person might believe in a particular sacred being in a particular way — or how and why a person doesn’t believe in a sacred being at all. An embrace of empathy asks us always to imagine beyond ourselves. When thinking about imagining beyond ourselves, I remember a moment from some years ago when I learned something from my daughter, Logan. One day, while walking with Logan (then seven years old), we were crossing a street at an intersection not far from where we lived in Trenton, NJ. There was a piece of trash on the ground, right in the middle of the road. I thought nothing of it. Logan, however, stopped as we crossed the street, wanting to pick up the trash. I responded, “Lo — we can’t stop in the middle of the street. We don’t have to pick that up.” But Logan looked at me as the light turned green and said, “But if we don’t pick it up, then who will?” Needless to say, we picked up the piece of trash. No one honked their car horns as we did so. That day, I was reminded that adults don’t have a monopoly on thinking about how to make the world a better place. It’s fairly bold of our school to ask each of us, students and adults, to embrace an empathetic mindset on our personal journey. Yet this mindset — for me, the most sacred of ECFS community values — is crucial for our community to cultivate. It pushes us far beyond tolerating the ideas and beliefs of others. Empathy instead calls us to participatory citizenship in which the community is forged on a daily basis, renewed year after year, and in which every member of the community is allowed to live in pursuit of their best selves. In essence, empathy empowers the spirit of ECFS as well as the sacredness of our mission.