It might seem strange to read a post about empathy on a y0uth theater website. But what if I told you, it may be one of the most fitting places to see it?
In this new chapter in my theater life and career, I’ve been spending a great deal of time considering the following questions, as they pertain to my work with young people:
1. What is it that we DO BEST?
2. Why is it that we do THAT as well as we do?
3. Is it IMPORTANT that we do it?
4. WHY is it important?
In thinking about this question, I’ve also worked to get out of my own head by asking others, particularly young people and parents, what they believe the answers to some of these questions are.
One that keeps coming up as a general theme is the idea of young people learning LIFE SKILLS in a setting that isn’t blatantly about life skills. The irony is, that this really wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when this all started five years ago. But it became clear that is WAS a serendipitous benefit of the work that was being done.
Now it’s something in which INTENTION and ATTENTION is being invested. Because it IS important! Why?
The culture we live in is constantly changing. It has evolved (or devolved in some ways) rapidly in my forty(mumble) years. The long and short of it is, that the gap between the growing up experiences of a parent and their teen now, is by far the widest gap in human history. I mean, I didn’t even have a dvd player or home internet service when my 18 year old son was born.
There has been exponential profusion of sources from which our young people are getting “life skills” instruction and modeling. It’s probably the broadest variety ever. The modeling they see is not just from parents, teachers, friends, 2 radio stations and three television networks.
That’s where EMPATHY comes in. The word is a simple compound word in Greek…it literally means “in-feeling”. So while SYMPATHY is feeling alongside of, empathy means to feel from INSIDE someone else. The relevance is not only in terms of parents and teens from “different worlds” learning to understand one another, but also in terms of finding safe and effective input sources to TEACH our young people empathy.
This word has been floating around my head since Monday, when I read about the tragic suicide of Robin Williams. For a variety of reasons, his death has affected me emotionally more than any “celebrity” death that I can ever recall.
The reason is that I always believed that as an actor, Robin Williams embodied real empathy for his characters as well or better than anyone I have ever seen. Even in those characters that demonstrated heightened or manic behaviors, there was a connecting point between Robin Williams and the internal feelings of the character that made them real. The character of Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam, immediately comes to mind.
From many accounts I’ve read this week, the empathy that Williams (the actor) demonstrated for his characters, was an empathy that carried over into the relationships of Williams (the man). He knew how to put himself emotionally into the soul of another person, allowing himself to deeply feel what he imagined they felt. And his ability to do that, over the last 35 years, has blessed millions.
This by no means this intended to be a commentary, or an expression of opinion, about the circumstances surrounding his death. Nor would I endeavor to sum up the value or character of a man in light of one single, albeit very final, moment of surrender. It is just that in dissecting my observations of him as an actor, and reading personal accounts of him as a person, I noticed a convergence. And that convergence was EMPATHY.
It wasn’t accidental empathy. He didn’t just stumble onto it. It was a skill forged in the crucible of character study and development that also positively impacted the people he knew and loved. And it was a skill that he practiced in his relationships with others that positively impacted his own performances. It’s one of those skills that has a circular function: it works both ways.
So what this week has done for me, in spite of the sadness I’ve personally felt, is to convince me that using theater experiences to intentionally teach young people the SKILL of empathy, is one of the most important services I can do for them, for their parents and for our community as we bob along in the whitewater of our rapidly changing culture.