Mary Gordon

Exploring the Roots of Empathy

On Monday, November 8, the Dalai Lama Center welcomed Mary Gordon and Brenda Morrison to speak in Vancouver at a special event held at the Harbour Centre.

The theme of the night was the power of empathy, particularly in child development, but in the development of the world as well. As Mary says: “war really is the extreme example of the failure of empathy.”

Before sitting down for an informal conversation with Brenda and DLC President and CEO Lynn Green, Mary presented her thoughts on empathy, and she gave some pretty concrete examples of empathy in action.

She also shared stories from her Roots of Empathy program. Roots of Empathy is a groundbreaking curriculum in which an infant and parent are placed in the classroom (kindergarten to Grade 8) once a week, and the students are encouraged to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. In this program, the baby becomes the “teacher” and the students are able to identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others.

In these classes, Mary says it’s not uncommon for “the toughest character in the class to give insight into how the baby is feeling and to share a time when he or she was vulnerable.”

“When children are connected through their shared feelings, they realize that they’re not islands. And the most isolated and the biggest bullies in the classroom, suddenly they’re human.”

Mary says she has seen countless bullies let down their guard after participating in Roots of Empathy, allowing themselves to be vulnerable.

“I’ve seen one of the classroom bullies make an incredible statement…he said, ‘I’m proud that I can now go on the science trip because I don’t wet the bed’. Now, what a heroic thing. What an act of faith and trust in your friends. To be able to be exquisitely vulnerable like that.”

Mary also believes that bullying is not always an overt behaviour.

“If you decide not to pick up your friend on the way to school anymore because your other new friend doesn’t like her, that’s excluding and marginalizing someone. And it’s not an overt, but a covert cruelty, and it’s probably more hurtful than, as the kids say, getting your lights punched out everyday. Because you don’t know what to do with a broken heart."