Week 10 — Ollie: empathy not sympathy

Today was Ollie’s birthday. He’s a nine year old boy from Leeds who was being bullied. Here’s what his dad wrote on Twitter a few days ago.

Strange request. Anyone know anyone famous/well known who could send Ollie a positive/9th birthday message?
The bully keeps saying to him that everything O has, he has bigger/better/more often. O excited for his birthday but keeps being told it won’t be as good as his own.
I would be so grateful and I appreciate it is an odd request. Just would love someone to tell him he does mean something and bullying is not ok, ever.

I read and watched the responses from across the world on Monday morning, on my way to our young people’s conference in London. I got pretty choked up sitting on the train.

Thousands of people had replied to say that they’d been bullied and got through it. Properly famous people sent videos: Alfie, Zoella, Russell Crowe, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stormzy, Major Tim Peake, Ellen DeGeneres, the England football team. The list goes on.

The internet can be foul. But this was twitter at its best: people with almost nothing in common but their shared humanity taking the time to say “I’ve been where you are, and it gets better.” Or just to say “I care”.

Somehow that set the tone for my week: people being confident enough to say their life has been hard and they’ve found a way through. People being confident enough to allow others to feel empathy, not sympathy.

Telling it like it is

I then spent a day with young people hearing about their lives and how we could improve. Here’s some of what they said at the start of the day.

We ran workshops and sessions with young people. We listened and asked questions. We got some of the day right, some of it wrong, and we learned how to do it better next time. And most importantly, we got clear ideas for how to make our services better for the next young people who need our help.

What made it work was the sheer generosity of the young people who came to the Oval cricket ground to talk with us. Some had travelled from Truro, others from Lancashire, and more from Kent.

They shared their experiences with real honesty. And again: with the confidence that if you’re open and honest, people will respond with empathy. Here’s a video Will, Matt and Ali made earlier in the same spirit:


Empathy and co-design

Today I’ve been in Scotland. And that confidence and empathy has been shining through all day.

First, at a group session in Kilmarnock, focusing on positive thinking, changing your inner voice and goal setting. These are practical tools you can use when things are tough. And eight people, who didn’t know each other at all a few days before, had given each other real confidence — sharing their experiences, ambitions and what they’re going to do next. They’re going to set up a WhatsApp group to support each other when their short course ends.

Then this afternoon, at a celebration of the recovery community in North West Glasgow. Over five years, a huge community of peer-supporters has sprung into life — prepared to be there for each other. Everyone there had powerful stories of how they’d been helped to recover by others with lived experience.

Addiction and empathy

I’m still just a few weeks into this role. But one thing I’ve seen again and again is the extraordinary empathy, warmth and openness of people in recovery. There’s a lot for us all to learn from that.

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