Seeing Both Sides: Teaching Empathy and Compassion

If there’s one truth I’ve learned working with young people in the prison system, it’s that there is always another side to every story, and another, and another. There is no excuse for violence, and there are horrible acts that deserve restitution, but there is always some gray. As the great Phil Ochs’ song says: “Show me a prison, show me a jail / Show me a prisoner whose face has gone pale / And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why / And there but for fortune, may go you or I.” On the Other Side is a classroom or family activity that does exactly what it says. It has young people (or adults) pick an issue they feel very strongly about. Then they prepare an argument for the other side. The goal is not for us to change our minds, but to challenge ourselves to see the other side of an argument with empathy and compassion.

I’m not shy about my position on gun control. I think the Second Amendment is outdated. Every day I see lives ruined because guns are easily accessible. Impulsive acts of anger that would end in broken noses and bruised fists (and perhaps a few months of community service) instead turn into terror, utter loss, and lives wasted in prison, all because guns are readily available. (According to the Violence Policy Center, nine women a week are shot and killed by intimate partners.) I’m not going to change my mind. But I can’t hate those on the other side. They feel strongly for reasons that are important to them. I have a dear friend who grew up in a hunting family in the country. He has a bear skin rug. He shot the bear. I know I won’t be able to convince him of what I think and feel about guns. Using the activity On the Other Side, I can at least try to understand his reasoning, his feelings, and the life experiences that have led to his decision to feel the way he does.

In high school, one of the most valuable activities I ever did was a mock trial competition. We had to prepare a defense for both sides of a case. I remember preparing for hours, spinning in circles, going back and forth between which side I thought was right, until I realized they both were right…and wrong. No case is clear cut. In fact, a great followup to On the Other Side is a viewing of the cinema classic Twelve Angry Men, which follows a jury struggling to make a decision after a murder trial. What appears to be an open-and-shut case turns into a lesson in how our own perspectives, prejudices, and life experiences shape what we see as truth.

These days, the stronger someone’s opinion, the less I trust its sincerity. It is much easier to hold onto our opinions if we demonize the other side. I trust people who are thoughtful and perhaps a little tentative about their decisions, because that shows they have looked deeply into the situation. Of course, it can feel uncomfortable to not be absolutely certain about something. That’s life.

Voltaire said, “doubt is not a pleasant condition. But certainty is absurd.” I most certainly agree. I think.

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Tall Trees Grow Deep is devoted to creating and sharing free resources that inspire mindfulness, contemplation, compassion, creativity, deep-thinking, and awesomeness. All activities are universal–no religion necessary–and designed to work in the classroom or around the kitchen table. If you haven’t already, subscribe to get new stuff sent to your email. Or explore our growing page of free, printable, reproducible activities for home or school.

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