Driven by Empathy

This short essay was written as a response to the following homework prompt for my course “Environmental Leadership and Biography,” co-taught by my friend Frances Sawyer, at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies:

Communicating your values strongly and eloquently is one of the most crucial skills a leader can develop. This is particularly true in mission-driven fields, particularly in environmental work.

The first difficulty is to think consciously about your own ethic – what are the bedrock values that you adhere to personally and wish to cultivate in your community? What are the standards of behavior you aspire yourself and others to match? What are the principles that guide your work? The second is to learn to communicate these values. In communicating your values and ethic to others, you can reinforce and clarify these values within yourself and begin to cultivate them within your community, thus building a foundation for future mission-driven work together.

For this first short assignment, please write a paragraph or so – approximately 500 words – discussing one or more of the key values that you hold or that you hope to cultivate in your community.

Empathy feeds my drive to learn more. It allows me to step out of my own space, even if just for an instant, to consider reality from a foreign viewpoint. When considered alongside my belief that narrow-mindedness and ignorance are often two of the greatest sources of problems and hindrances to crafting solutions, empathy provides me with fuel to fight for change.

Values often take on lives of their own. They emerge from moments of perspective; they evolve over years if not decades of life; they take on new forms, the same man but now one with a rich full beard that is a marked distinction from how he was previously known.

For me, empathy has always been with me. One of my earliest and favorite activities as a child was running out from our house to the backyard, where I would spend as much time as I could rolling over logs to watch bugs crawl. Millipedes, centipedes, ants, beetles, and my favorite: pill bugs, aka roly polys.

Look at those cute little legs!

I loved those little grey guys. The minuscule armadillo-like ravines running down their oval backsides, dozens of tiny soft feet on their pale underbellies, a pair of antennae waving in every direction…and of course, their reflexive duck, cover, and tighten-up-into-a-ball move when you touch them. (Having recently taken three flights to get back home from Samoa, I just thought of how proud every flight attendant would be if his or her passengers ducked and covered as well during emergency landings).

What does this all have to do with my values and empathy? Well…a lot really. I still have a memory that amidst my delight of watching the roly poly’s roll, I began wondering “why do they roll?” Now I’m not trying to say that 6-year-old Sam suddenly plopped down cross-legged under the tree, scratching my chin as I postulated grand theories. But this was about the age that I watched that classic movie Honey I Shrunk the Kids, so my child-like imagination was in full gear.

Giving you a sense of young Sammy T

I had zero amount of difficulty putting myself inside the microscopic ground-level world of the crawling critters. Why do they walk this and that way? What does their food taste like? How scared must they tighten up into a ball when some giant being pokes them after lifting their dark home from above their heads?

Many people are grossed out by or even scared of bugs. And indeed, some aren’t so good (I still am annoyed when I see slugs oozing their bile and eating up my parent’s vegetable garden). But in the end, most are vital for ecosystem health. And how could I ever intentionally harm roly poly’s? They aren’t creepy little grey dots skittering around- they’re just cute little guys and gals looking for food to munch on.

Once I put myself in their shoes (every single little one of em’), I could see the world from a new perspective I hadn’t previously known. And I still do today. As I continue fighting for action on climate change, I think about what steps can be taken to ease the transition to new livelihoods for coal workers laid off from new regulations. When a drone strike takes out an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen but also kills innocents nearby, I wonder if the anger for their lost loved ones is enough for them to now see the United States as their lifelong enemy. When my favorite football player turns down a contract to skip town for another team, I wonder if he was driven by desire for a sweet new Ferrari, or if maybe the salary boost would enable him to better help his sister put her kids through college. When my brother excitedly talks about the most recent venture he undertook at Crowdflower, my love for him is joined by my own excitement as I look upon the vision he has for his company and his own future. I hope that I can continue to cultivate empathy within my communities, for it is always with me. And so forever will the smile be when I think about my old pals crawling, running, and munching in my old backyard in DC.

***Right before I published this post, we broke into small groups and discussed our thoughts on this assignment in class. The conversation between my classmates and I organically turned to empathy, and there are three main forms of empathy that emerged from our discussion that I wanted to share.

  1. Empathy for nature. Just as my story of the pillbug helps explain where my passion for the environment comes from, so too did others share how empathy for living beings drives their efforts.
  2. Empathy for the other side. I believe (as did my friends) that we need to act on climate change. And I’m pumped that the EPA took strong action this summer on carbon dioxide emissions. But what about the coal miners & power plant workers and their families who will truly suffer from these needed rules? Can initiatives or mechanisms be created for job training to help with the transition? What else can our leaders do?
  3. Empathy for one another. Each person in our group shared some powerful stories. It was evident how much this discussion meant to them, and how empathy truly influenced their ways of thinking, beliefs in action, and passion to fight. Don’t forget about the people sitting right in front of you, whether they are your best friend or the classmate who’s name you can’t remember.

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