The Weight of Empathy

I am feeling Sad.

I’m not sure where along the line it happened, but my heart opened up to this new batch of students and I am stuck holding a tension of hope/optimism for their future and the dull realization that even if they ‘pass’ my class they might not ‘succeed’ here in the college level.

I posted to Facebook this Sadness, and my professor friend, Russ, asked the great question about my Sadness:

Is it the line of work or the inherent belief or feeling that things should be better?

My response was:

Both, probably. I’m not an inherently optimistic person, but with young people I see the future and it’s amazing…and then I also see how they themselves, and life, and the very institution that I participate in is also contributing to a cycle where the future collective and theirs individually isn’t as amazing. Its an overwhelming feeling sometimes…

I’m not naive enough to think that I can solve it all…the years of self doubts or self-fulfilling prophecies or labels or external circumstances that left them in the situation they’re in. I’m not naive enough to think that the institution I work for even has their best interests at heart, for public education, and even institutes of higher education, are maybe not about creating thinkers or individuals but WORKERS, which is a rough tension because they want jobs (ya know?!). I meet these wonderful young people, with their whole life ahead of them, and I can see dazzling futures ahead of them…and I can see how they have so many obstacles in their way…some of which are put their by themselves.

For example, I pulled a student aside this afternoon and said that I really liked him, that he was smart and probably shouldn’t even be in a college prep class like mine because his work is exemplary, but that other teachers aren’t going to like his behavior, and I really don’t want him to have to repeat my class. His response?

“Oh. I’m sorry. Was my behavior bad today?”

Because individually he is probably the most respectful student ever. But he was sharing his ear buds with a friend. And they were really into their beats and got sidetracked by whatever social media device was handy, and they were relating to each other and it was fine if it had just been ONE student. But the self awareness doesn’t extend past their own chest. There’s an inability for them to see how their (for lack of a better term) dickish behavior is compounded by the dickish behavior of other students, and suddenly the environment of the classroom becomes one of supreme DICKISHNESS.

It’s true.

They contribute to the overall climate of the class, and it’s heading in a sinking ship direction. I’m not sure how to steer the ship back into safe waters…where they’ll be allowed to express themselves, but also conform. Because we all have to conform. I don’t get to wear pajama pants to work. Or no pants to work. But that’s what I’d like to do, you know?

And when I push  aside my annoyance, and get to a deeper, more true spot, it’s my empathy and big Sad that these students are maybe ignoring the SOS calls and heading straight into another iceberg in their life. I know it’s not my job to save them, but my heart wants to save them. I want them all to be successful in ways that they can’t even imagine for themselves. I’m stuck in the tension of seeing them so clearly and also having to uphold a standard of conduct and academia that will result in them ‘fitting in’ in college level classes.


  1. Again, I can so relate to this post. I’m a psychotherapist and have experienced many of the feelings you describe. In fact, I’ve had serious health problems for several years now that I believe are directly related to my tendency to soak up the pain of others like a sponge.

    I read some literature that suggested that when a child is being raised in some situation that is causing them to suffer, the impact of even ONE supportive figure has an enormous protective effect.

    I know that this was true for me. My first grade teacher took me under her wing and planted the very first seeds of self worth in me, just by loving me and reflecting back to me something positive about myself. There were other teachers along the way also.

    You’re making a difference for these kids and they’re very lucky to have you.

    • It’s exhausting isn’t it? Do you long term therapy work? I know for me, that the crisis counseling was actually easier than long term work (or teaching/advising these students), because it was short and intense and I didn’t really have to let them in on a deep level. But doing this type of work…I don’t see how I can’t let them in and affect me (in both a good and a hard way).

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