Discussing in class yesterday really made me realize the issues we have on campus. I found that when I sat down to write a blog post I was focused more on empathy and noticing the suffering of people around me, but in my daily life I rarely changed my way of thinking. I continued to almost block out my own troubles and shift my attention away from the suffering of those around me because it was easier than actually having to deal with something. Maybe its something that could be improved over time if you continued to really concentrate on noticing, but could one person noticing make a difference? How could you convince everyone else in the world to empathize in the same way if thats the only way to make real global change. As a college student, how much of it is our responsibility? I always try to make a difference in my own community first and just hope that everybody else will do the same and eventually the world will transform into a better place. But then I see terrorist attacks and immense human health suffering and I realize I am way to idealistic in my thinking. Its disheartening because I can only do so much for change. I can only hope that my noticing and effort to improve my surrounding will rub off on others, but who is to say if it will
My partner and I met up to reflect on what we observed and learned through this exercise. We decided that we both substantially noticed the little things throughout the day a whole lot more than we used to. Middlebury College is a very interesting place filled with amazing people and opportunities. This exercise truly helped me appreciate the small moments in life.
My partner and I met up the other day and talked about our empathy exercise. We discussed how we realized how the idea was to notice other people’s actions and observe other people. Instead we both felt we were drawn to notice a lot about ourselves. However, I felt I usually noticed not just myself but also it turned into a general awareness. I would think about what I was experiencing on my walk from my dorm to class. It was like I had become hypersensitive to the world around me, and how I interacted with complete strangers who I was walking past. I remember the exercise we did in the beginning of the year where we anonymously wrote something we struggled with on a piece of paper. Everyone in the class had all sorts of things going on that I would never be able to tell. When I thought about that I realized that this is true with everyone. I have no idea what is happening with the person who is waiting in line in front of me in Procter. This exercise made me really notice how I responded to people especially when they were complete strangers.
Middlebury College is an interesting, engaging, and incredibly special place; I feel so fortunate to be a part of it. It is also a place where productivity is sometimes the ultimate goal and individual schedules and stresses take center stage. Empathy often takes the form of commiserating about work and academic pressure, but oftentimes other sources of emotional strain are left unacknowledged. It’s almost like we get into empathy “ruts,” where only certain things are acceptable to share and receive. I think this relates back to global health in the sense that there are always health issues that, whether it be locally or globally, garner a lot of attention and empathy for one reason or another, while there are others that never receive that same empathy and attention (typically because of some stigma they carry). This sounds like a huge and almost insurmountable global health challenge. What could possible cause global empathy tendencies to shift and grow? Well, I think it could start right here on campus. Just like some health topics are stigmatized worldwide, things like eating disorders, mental health, perceived personal short-comings, and doubt can feel like they carry a stigma on this campus. By opening up to people around us we can give and receive meaningful empathy. I believe that at any given moment everyone is fighting some sort of battle and comparing and contrasting does no good; the only way to heal, and to help heal others, whether it be halfway around the world or right down the hall, is to accept their battle as it is, without any alterations or explanations.
This issues discussed in Global Health this semester combined with a heightened awareness of my community that I have developed through writing weekly blog posts for “Movement Matters” have led me to form new opinions on problems that Middlebury students face and where those problems fit in on a global scale. Early in the semester, Pam asked us to anonymously write something that others might not know about us on a piece of paper. She later read those answers aloud, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of people that said they were depressed, had anxiety, or were struggling with body image. I remember thinking, “wow, I never would have guessed that SO many people who look so put-together are really struggling inside.” I carried this thought with me this fall as I began to focus more thoughtfully on my surroundings and the students that make up the Middlebury College community. Using our global health class as a random sample of college students, I figured that if that many people in one class had mental struggles, mental health must be a rampant issue on this campus. I kept that sentiment in mind when noticing other students going about their busy lives. We are trained in our society to display a high level of function and self-control, which is often just a façade. Underneath the many well-dressed, high-performing students are individuals who are struggling with something not visible from the surface. When viewed on a global scale next to infectious disease, violence, and malnutrition, these mental struggles may seem insignificant. However, it is undeniable that they have a large impact on our community. We spent all semester discussing global health issues, but before we can change the world, we need to able to empathize and understand our own community. Becoming aware of the issues within my community is a good first step.
It is with disbelief at how fast time went by and much reflection about the semester that I write this blog post.
After weeks of being both intentionally and unintentionally witnessing aspects of Middlebury, I have come to realize a few things about the human capacity of empathy as well as about feelings in general. I have compiled them into a list.
- People are afraid of burdening other people with their problems. They are afraid of inducing an unwanted empathy in their peers for fear of redistributing the heavy weight of personal emotional problems. However, these intensely empathetic conversations are the very ones that create strong interpersonal relationships.
- Reassuring touches on the shoulder go a long way. People I know who initiate casual physical touches in this way spread a feeling of warmth and comfort- physicality is a very tangible and effective form of relaying empathy.
- Unwavering eye contact is the best form of active and empathetic listening. People don’t do it enough, and they are always pleasantly surprised when you are very engaged in conversations.
- Smiling never hurt anybody.
These are some of the tangible observations I have made about manifestations of empathy this semester. I think it is important to think about not just feeling empathy, but a way to make the empathy active and productive.
I think that many, many people on this campus are quietly struggling with mental health. Therefore, I think there are numerous people who could empathize with each other, but these conversations are not being initiated. There is a fear of becoming vulnerable and a fear of exposing internal battles. However, this fear is impeding the potential for these wonderfully intimate personal relationships as I listed as #1. If we could break down these walls, by doing even little things like making more engaged eye contact or giving more meaningful touches in passing, this community could become a much more actively empathetic and supportive place.
I have discovered my new favorite form of empathy: beautifully written quotes. Often, it is hard to put words to feelings. Conveniently, this is exactly what famous authors specialize in. I love finding a line of poetry or an excerpt from a book that perfectly articulates the support or emotion that I would want to convey but cannot find the words myself. Authors are incredibly emotionally intelligent. It is both relieving and awe-inducing to realize, by reading these excerpts, that there are people existing in other places and at other times who felt the same things I am feeling today. That is the most tangible form of empathy I have encountered.
My observations of how empathy operates in humanity are only beginning. I think that these observations are the kind that grow and evolve throughout life. I have come to the conclusion that empathy is the means to a meaningful life. Life is short, life is hard, life is full of curveballs. The most grounding thing you can do for yourself, and for others, is realize that there are other people feeling the same feelings that you are. Feelings are the level at which every human can connect- and that is something that is incredibly valuable.
The topics discussed in Global Health and the thoughts raised our Movement Matters blogposts throughout the semester leave a conflicted sensation in my mind as I look forward to the end of the semester, the Holiday break, and everything that goes along with Winter in Vermont and at Middlebury. My partner and I discussed at length the heightened awareness we experiences in relation to our bodies and physical activity, spurred by the original Bees movement matters class. As athletes, we were both constantly exposed to opportunities to feel the effects of movement on our mental and physical health and overall happiness. This has contributed to me developing a deeper understanding and passion for healthy nutrition, too. I know sublimity of an amazingly hard workout, and I’ve now realized that nutrition is one of the most important factors in being able to access this “runner’s high” more often. Through learning about nutrition deficiencies in class lectures, I am certainly more aware of the privilege I have. Giving my body what it needs to feel its best is never a question of accessibility here at Middlebury. And yet, while I hope that higher awareness has allowed me to be more empathetic with those who suffer daily from nutritional deficiencies, or any global health disease or issue for that matter, I know that my worst nutritional days are still miles ahead of billions of people in this world. I don’t know what it is like to be truly hungry, because I’ve never been placed in that situation. I’ve never known of the toll a chronic disease can take because I am protected through immunization and my illnesses always resolve in a few days. More importantly, while it is so easy for me to empathize with my classmates who are also busy finishing final essays and studying for final exams, I still find it difficult to empathize with those with “real problems”—the life-threatening ones, the ones that don’t disappear when we submit the final assignment and pack up for the holidays. Even when I’ve been most diligent about considering the world around me, I feel like I’ve come up short.
But, as we presented our elevator speeches on Tuesday, I realized the depth and breadth of the multitude of global health issues at stake in today’s world. There will never be a world without these problems, and so trying to empathize with each one of the harrowing stories or cruel mistreatments out there is impossible. What the class has given me, though, is a thorough look at the parts of the world that are so easy to ignore here at a private college in Middlebury, VT. Being exposed to these realities hasn’t always been easy, but I believe it is necessary. And in the process, I have found myself empathizing with some of the causes, and quite strongly at times. We can only make an impact on the world one step at a time, so really, we don’t need to have a broad empathy for everything, we really just need to have strong and sincere empathy with a single cause—and then choose to act on it.
Global Health has been somewhat of a struggle for me internally. It has been a fascinating class, but I often find myself feeling horrifically guilty that all I’m doing is sitting in class learning about all of these issues facing millions of people near me and far away, and sometimes that distracts me. I catch myself feeling guilty that I have so much and other people have so little, but also because people are inflicted with diseases that are a product of their environment or where they were born, over which they have little control. I spoke to my partner about this and she says she feels guilty sometimes, but she is more spurred to action than bogged down by thoughts similar to mine.
I also find myself feeling paralyzed by the extent of the issues people face and the fact that there is no easy solution; global health issues are costly to address and programs are difficult to implement. Sometimes I feel hopeless that these issues will ever be resolved, and alarmed that the worsening climate will exacerbate all of these health issues before they have a chance to be tackled. This guilt I think gets in the way of my ability to feel empathy, and I am aware that it is an unproductive emotional approach to these issues. Still, it’s hard to not feel guilty for all that you have and all that you don’t have (namely, negative structural and social determinants of health) when other people out there suffer.
As I finish this semester and reflect on this empathy exercise, I take my empathy observations to London this week. The main takeaway I observe is the acceptance of empathy is strongly shaped by our culture too. The British are often criticized as “too cold”, implying a lack of empathy towards others. On an unconscious level, one may have emotional reactions, yet one’s culture and environment may dictate the appropriateness to express these emotions. This in turn affects how empathetic one can be- I’ve noticed Americans tend to be more outgoing and engaged while British are more conservative and reserved. My partner and I talked about the ability to be empathetic by choice (beyond unconscious reaction) and it wasn’t until traveling that I noticed how important culture plays into this decision. Perhaps their acts of empathy are communicated more with action than verbally- now is that deemed more preferable? We also talked about the difficulties of reaction- culture and social norms are definitely key parts to driving this reaction and action of empathy as noticed across the pond.
Over dinner, my partner and I met to discuss the result of our empathy exercise over the whole semester. In our discussion, we got back to the topic of dance performance. Last night, I was performing in a dance show, and reflecting on the show, I realized how much I as a dancer react to the audience. In a live performance, the audience is not just reacting to the dancers, as in the video we watched; the reaction goes both ways. Hearing the crowd come in got me excited, even though I couldn’t see them. I could feel the stillness of the room as we walked out on stage in the dark for our first dance, I could feel my smile grow as the audience cheered, I felt my brain shut off and my feet just take off the stage lights came on, I felt my confidence rise as I made eye contact with my fellow dancers, I was surprised when the audience cheered for simple steps (they must have looked cool!), and I was affirmed when the audience cheered for parts of my choreography I was particularly proud of.
Through this example of reaction to dance as a witness and reaction to the observers as a dancer, I realized that empathy really goes both ways when it is strongest and most meaningful. Sure, we can have some empathy for things we witness in a video or read about, but I think the truest empathy is when two people are together and each one is witnessing the other and the process is ongoing and two-way. I think this can help explain why in global health we hear about or see videos of lots of horrible things far away, and do nothing, but we act when whoever is facing the problem is there with us in person.
As this is our last normal post before the final reflection, I want to share what empathy means to me. When I think of empathy and noticing, I think of the E. E. Cummings poem “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in].” For me, this poem makes me think of my mom and sister, the people for whom I experience the strongest and most consistent empathy. With everything going on on campus with finals ramping up, and the various shocking and painful crisis in the world recently (and not so recently), I have been thinking a lot about this poem; it helps me remember the positive aspects of human connection.
[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
BY E. E. CUMMINGS
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
You can tell the end of the semester is approaching because the library feels more crowded. I walked down on the first floor to sit in my usual spot, which had been taken. I then searched for another place, which made me procrastinate even more as I stopped and talked to the friends I passed. Eventually I find my place and notice all the people focused in on their work. Everyone has a ton of work, but everyone has an array of other things happening in their lives too that may be adding more unwanted stress.
One of the ‘hot topics’ around campus centers around race relations, race sensitivity, and cultural appropriation. This is a conversation in which I want to participate, but feel that I can’t because I have not experienced the kind of subtle (or overt) discrimination people of color have, and I would not want to upset anyone by speaking without knowing exactly how it will affect others. Over break I was speaking with friends and family about the ‘Coddling of the American Mind’ article in the Atlantic a couple of months back and a more recent article published by an African American professor at Columbia, both of which mention that students in general need to be less sensitive about issues like the ones I mentioned above. I am struggling hard to assimilate both sides of this issue, and feel myself getting frustrated that there is no simple solution to race relations in this country that will benefit everyone. It is also frustrating to think that this lack of a simple solution applies to nearly all issues plaguing our society today, an issue that Global Health class has brought to the forefront of my mind. I know I will drive myself less crazy if I acccept this difficult truth, but right now I’m finding that difficult.
Sometimes I just google global health issues and switch to the news tab just to try and stay current on the issues facing the world today. I am inevitably overwhelmed by the gross amounts of inequity and the basic health issues the world faces, many of which we are immune to in the US. And then I read an article like this one: https://www.devex.com/news/how-climate-change-affects-malnutrition-87328
The article discussed how environmental changes will impact poverty and malnutrition in the coming years if we keep the pace we are currently at. I can only imagine how worse off the developing countries will be if something is not done to curb the effects of environmental change. I then imagine myself 50 years in the future googling the same thing and I am disturbed by the news I fear I will face.