Empathy is a vital human force. One that creates happier children, stronger communities and a better world. It’s come into sharp focus during the pandemic and right now, we’ve never needed it more. Empathy is being able to imagine and share someone else’s feelings.
The good news is that it’s a skill you can learn, and Empathy Day on 9 June aims to help everyone understand and experience its transformational power. Empathy Day focuses on how we can use books to step into someone else’s shoes. Scientists say that we can train our brain with stories – the more you empathise with characters, the more you understand other people’s feelings.
Empathy Day was established by not-for-profit EmpathyLab, who are on a mission to inspire the rising generation to drive a new empathy movement. On 9 June they will host a day of brilliant online events and home-based celebrations to help children READ, CONNECT AND ACT using empathy. Children can join in whether they’re at home or at school, and authors, illustrators, schools and libraries across the country will all be taking part.
To mark the countdown to Empathy Day, India Desjardins, whose A Story About Cancer with a Happy Ending is included in EmpathyLab’s Read for Empathy Collection, has written about the use and intention of positive phrases in our current time, and in her book, and how, while there is no bad intention behind them, they do force us to ignore what is going on and to empathise.
We are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, confined to our homes, not really knowing what will happen to us, forced to live day by day, which we do not always manage to succeed in doing, except perhaps for the brief time of a yoga class slipped between two appointments in our performance-oriented lives.
Here in Quebec, inspired by the Italian motto andrà tutto bene, we’ve adopted the slogan “It’s going to be okay”, adorned with a rainbow.
Then, little by little, people began to express their discomfort with this slogan, feeling that they were not “okay” at all.
Is it possible that we’ve found a new way of putting pressure on ourselves? Should we “be okay” at all costs, be strong in all circumstances, or show only our best moments on social networks? Do we really take the time to ask each other “How are you?” and listen to the answer?
My book A Story About Cancer (With A Happy Ending) touches upon this issue. The character, a 15-year-old girl with leukemia, can no longer bear her mother to tell her that she is strong, that she will win this fight. And at one point she asks: “Mom, if I don’t get better, will you be disappointed in me?”
“Of course not, sweetie”, she responds, as she realizes that what was meant to be encouraging, perhaps did not allow her daughter to express her moments of weakness.
“I could get used to other people saying things like that to me, but not my mom. She had to be able to accept, just like I did, that I might not be able to recover from this disease. And that it wasn’t my fault.”
There is no bad intention behind positive phrases like “It’s going to be fine” or “You’re going to be strong”. It shows that we believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel … but that at the same time, it forces us to ignore the tunnel. Empathy is to assume that this tunnel exists. And sometimes it’s better to say: “There is a tunnel. It’s dark, terrifying, and we don’t know which way to go yet, but I’ll be by your side to try and cross it as best I can.”
We need positive phrases to help us believe in the future, but we also need empathy, to give our emotions free rein, and to draw strength from them.
For the first time this year, EmpathyLab will host its Empathy Day programme online to support families at home. Schools and libraries across the country will also be offering a wide range of home learning and story-time activities.
Prior to the big day, EmpathyLab are hosting a Countdown Fortnight on their social media channels (26 May-8 June). Highlights include brand-new empathy-themed illustrations from leading artists, short stories from favourite authors and video readings of empathy-boosting books and poems from the writers themselves. Families can also download a new Family Activities Pack, featuring 14 writing, drawing, crafting, listening and reading activities to do at home. https://www.empathylab.uk/family-activities-pack
Events on 9 June will begin at 9:30am with Children’s Laureate and best-selling author Cressida Cowell, who will introduce Empathy Day. The day’s activities, designed to introduce children to the concept and importance of empathy and how to put it into action, include a draw-along with Rob Biddulph, a poetry challenge with Sarah Crossan, Empathy Charades with Joseph Coelho, exercises on listening with Jo Cotterill and Robin Stevens, before rounding up the day with an activity on putting empathy into action with Onjali Rauf and Sita Brahmachari. Finally, an evening event with Cressida Cowell, Muhammad Khan and psychologist Professor Robin Banerjee aimed at parents, teachers and librarians will address the science that drives EmpathyLab.
The full programme can be found HERE https://bit.ly/EmpathyDay2020
Join in with the #EmpathyDay social media campaign and share your #ReadforEmpathy book recommendations.