Tragedy underscores need to teach empathy

  • Article by: LUKE MILLER
  • Updated: December 17, 2012 - 8:42 PM

For 30 years, we've taught children to care foremost about themselves. That was a mistake.

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A mother and son spend time at a memorial left at the Shrine of the Virgin Mary for victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on Sunday, December 16, 2012.

Photo: Genaro Molina, Mct - Mct

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As the country pours out its empathy for the latest shooting victims, we all ask ourselves the question: "Why do events like this happen?"

I believe the root cause is our nation's fetish with self-esteem building and our collective failure over the last 30 years to teach our children how to empathize with one another.

I am a counselor in a residential treatment program that works with kids who have a vast array of personality disorders. I go to work with the knowledge that if my coworkers and I are not effective in the messages we are sending to the students we work with, any one of them has the potential to produce the scene that was witnessed Friday in Newtown, Conn.

Recently I asked the middle-school students on the team that I work with why they were on the team. Although I got a variety of answers, the general theme was, "I am here for myself."

I then asked myself: "How on earth is this team supposed to function properly if every member is there only for themselves?" It caused me to reflect upon not only the messages that these kids had received but also the messages that my peers and I received while growing up in the 1990s and 2000s.

As I look back upon the inflated grades that my peers and I received, the constant praise and adulation we were given by our leaders, and the award buffets that would occur constantly, it becomes painfully obvious that the overriding message being sent was that we were important. Not collectively, but individually.

The principle being applied was that if you build up a young person's self-esteem enough, they will become resilient and wildly successful.

After bearing witness to so many of my peers -- males in their 20s -- gunning down their community members, I have come to the conclusion that this principle has failed us as a society.

We were taught growing up how to value ourselves, but not how to value others. We were taught that every individual is important, but not the importance of the community. We were taught to love ourselves, but not how to love others. We were given constant praise, rarely criticized.

Couple this habitual validation with the rise in social media that allows us to see just how many people "like" whatever it is that we posted, and we've got a generation of young people who not only crave validation, but are addicted to it and need to have it instantly. Miss an instant-gratification hit or get criticized enough, and one's sense of identity crumbles.

Most of us don't grab a gun and massacre innocent people when this happens, but some of us do. And some of us will continue to do so unless we, as Americans, change.

We can get rid of all of the guns we want, but until we start placing more emphasis on our community members and our children than ourselves, we destine one another to live in a society where events such as the Newtown tragedy can and will occur.

We have an empathy deficit in this nation that is so large it makes the federal budget deficit look small. And when we fail to empathize with one another and when we pass this behavior on to our children, that deficit grows ever larger, failing all of the communities that we belong to.

No matter who you are, you belong to communities. We belong to communities at work, communities at school, communities of friends and communities of family. All of us here in this nation are a part of a grand community known as Americans. I am left puzzling over the same question I asked myself recently with my students: "How on earth is our community of Americans supposed to function properly if so many members are here only for themselves?"

One of the most influential children's authors of all time wrote that: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

That sentiment has never rung truer. Unless all of us become the "you" that Dr. Seuss refers to and start caring a "whole awful lot" about each other, he is 100 percent right. Nothing is going to get better. It's not.

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Luke Miller is a children's counselor in Duluth.

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