This is my brain. This is my brain on a short leash.

Thanks to a comment from Paul on yesterday’s post, I’ve been introduced to Jeremy Rifkin and this excellent video about creating an empathic civilization:

When I went to Detroit last year, one of the messages we kept hearing at the conference was that equity is the answer (not surprising, as I was attending the Equity Summit).  Thinking more about Noguera’s speech yesterday and my response to it reminded me of the conversations I had the speeches I heard in Detroit. 

One of the panelists we heard the first day was Jeffrey Canada from the Harlem Children’s Zone.  I’ve had the opportunity to see and hear Canada quite a bit in the last year, and sometimes I find myself feeling a little jaded when I listen to him, and sometimes what he says is like a bright light switching on and clarifying some point I haven’t been able to articulate.  The latter was my response to something he said in Detroit.  He talked about the need for us to think about all children as our own children.  Again, like Noguera’s empathic conversations comment, this is pretty obvious on its face, pretty basic.

His point was that the people who hold power make sure their own children are well taken care of, but often seem little concerned about or perhaps magically and blissfully unaware of the environments in which they allow other people’s children to live and be educated. He said he finally realized that the secret to changing the odds for children like the ones he serves was to make everyone see that all children are our children, that there is no mythical sub category of “their children.”

Totally obvious.  And fits so well with Noguera’s comment about empathy.  If, as Rifkin says, empathy is how we show solidarity with others, extending the group of others with whom we show solidarity would mean that we’d be extending the range of our kindness, the reach of our compassion.  We wouldn’t be able to accept the fact of children living in poverty or being witnesses to violence at home or school.  We would be so moved and horrified by these things happening to our children that we would do something about it.  We would change systems and create equitable, socially just policies so that our children would grow up well, safe and happy.  I like it.

As far as my personal Empathy Quotient goes, I’ve been monitoring my thoughts today.  It doesn’t serve to monitor my behavior, because I’m usually quite well behaved.  My thoughts, on the other hand …  You might be thinking that it hardly matters what’s in my head as long as I’m not acting on all my unkind musings, and it’s true that we’re all better off if people exercise impluse control and don’t act on every thought they have.  At the same time, the things I think about affect my mood and my behavior … and souring my mood isn’t good for me and can’t be good for anyone who has to be around me, either.

I monitored … and by lunch time I had had to stop myself about a dozen times — cutting off my disparaging and disdainful thoughts about someone I heard being interviewed on the news, people I saw on the bus and subway heading to work, two of my colleagues.  And those are just the times I was observant enough to catch myself.  I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am.  Surprised and saddened to see how intolerant I’ve become.  Maybe I’ve always been this snarky, but I don’t think so. 

So I have work to do.  It’s not just stopping the thought, it’s replacing it with a new thought, a thought that’s coming from the empathic side of my brain.  It’s not as simple as finding an I’m-trying-to-relate-to-who-you-are thought … and that’s already not simple.  It’s interesting looking so closely at what I’m thinking, hitting “pause” when something ugly bubbles up and reworking my brain to a kinder, gentler place.


Check out the rest of today’s slices over at Two Writing Teachers.

10 thoughts on “This is my brain. This is my brain on a short leash.

  1. Tracey

    I like the idea of using an internal snark-meter, not to mention “reworking my brain to a kinder gentler place.” Thanks for the inspiration!


  2. I loved watching the Jeremy Rifkin video. I remember watching a piece like this created by Ken Robinson as he spoke. So creative.
    I wonder about Jeffrey Canada. I think he is probably a wonderful educator but someone who has had to sell out a bit to stay afloat, dip into Bill Gates’ money.
    But I accept his genius and his passion for education reform.
    Thanks for thinking deeply about this and sharing your own vulnerability.


  3. Wow, that really made me think when you said you are well-behaved by your thoughts are not. I’m going to give this empathy exercise a try today… and beyond. Thanks!


    1. It’s been interesting to “watch” my thoughts for the last day. I don’t know how necessary (or healthy) it is for my thoughts to be totally well-behaved, but I think the nudge toward empathy will be a good thing.


  4. Paul

    I’m sorry that I’m late to comment on this one; very glad that the Rifkin video was something you found useful (he has a book devoted to the subject). To me, the gateway to empathy is story. I have a story, so do you, so does every person; and to honor each other, we need to pay close attention to our stories and use them to perhaps not reserve judgment, but to realize that judgment requires a larger context than we normally have. This requires a slowness of mind — to not rush to a conclusion but to consider what might be missing in the context in which I’m building that conclusion. A student misses class, doesn’t hand in work. I could easily make judgments based on these behaviors that would not be empathetic. But what is the story behind what the student’s doing? When we know each others’ stories, everything changes — more often than not, anyway.

    Thoughtful writing and reflection. Thanks for sharing it!


    1. Thanks for the additional resource, Paul. Your “I have a story” idea is how I look at this, too. Have you heard Chimimanda Adichie’s TedTalk on The Danger of a Single Story? This definitely fits into the mix on empathy. I love the idea of “slowness of mind.” It’s what I’m trying to do as I monitor my thoughts, slow down enough to hear myself and think and rethink things. Thanks for your addition to this process for me!


Your turn ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s