Empathy Assembly - Mr Potts

Whenever I stand at the front of this church to deliver an assembly, I’m always reminded of one of my favourite novels when I was growing up: To Kill a Mockingbird.

The story is set in Alabama in the 1930s, at a time in American history when different races were segregated and prejudice and injustice were a part of everyday life. One of the climactic scenes in the novel is the trial of Tom Robinson, an African American man wrongly accused of rape, whose only crime was to show sympathy and compassion to a poor and vulnerable white woman. The author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, only published one novel within her lifetime but her vivid description of the courthouse always comes to mind in this particular building, when I look up at the balconies and the rows of wooden pews, and it immediately evokes powerful memories of a book I first read almost 30 years ago.

I think the reason this particular novel still resonates with me after all this time is because its core themes: the importance of kindness, tolerance and  trying to do the right thing – even if it isn’t always the easy thing – are still as relevant now as they were when the novel was first published back in 1960.

There’s another universal theme that really stands out in To Kill a Mockingbird: empathy. And there’s a brilliant quote buried within the novel where one of the main characters, Atticus Finch, a widowed father desperately trying to educate his two children within a harsh and ignorant society, really spells out what empathy is:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

The lesson he’s trying to teach his children is that it’s really easy to judge others harshly, based on their actions or behaviours, but it’s important that we first try to understand why they’re behaving in that way.

We’ll all have encountered friends and classmates who may appear grumpy or impatient and are generally quite difficult to be around. But do we ever stop to think about what hidden stresses and difficulties may be leading them to behave that way? Have we even taken the time to ask them, ‘is everything ok?’

We’ll always be aware of that person who seems to desperate to boast and impress everyone, to the point that it turns others away, but do we ever stop to think, ‘maybe that person lacks genuine confidence and feels the need to try a little too hard to be accepted?’

And we’ve probably all had that one friend who used to be so much fun but now seems so ‘boring.’ But how many of us take the time out of our own busy lives to think about what might have prompted that change in attitude?

Empathy doesn’t always come naturally but it’s something we all need to work on and we also need to ponder the question: if I can’t empathise with others or seek to understand their behaviour without rushing to judgement, how can I expect them to do the same for me?

We also need to work on empathy when we’re interacting with each other on social media or simply having a joke with friends. If we disregard the feelings of other people – even in jest – it can cause lasting harm and saying “but we were only having a laugh” or “it was only banter” can never be an excuse.

A joke between friends, a prank or a message over social media may be intended to be humorous and/or harmless but it can be anything but that if you’re the person at the butt of the joke. We need to show empathy. And, before we speak, act or ‘hit send,’ we should always ask ourselves: how would I feel if I was the person being laughed at?

’m going to finish on another quote and it’s from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius:

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”

None of us are perfect but we need to take the time to accept each other’s faults and – where possible – respond with kindness.

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