Teaching empathy

(Today we feature a guest blog post from DRO staff Attorney, Sarah Radcliffe. Sarah coordinates our Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI) program and co-authored “Behind the Eleventh Door,” our report on conditions in the Behavioral Health Unit at Oregon State Penitentiary.

It was originally published in the October 2015 Newsletter of the Multnomah Bar Association and is reproduced here for accessibility purposes.)

Teaching Empathy: Why I Don’t Insulate My Kids from Hardship

Photo: A black and white photo of a woman smiling at the camera, with her hair in a bun and wearing a professional blazer.

[Photo description: A black and white photo of a woman smiling at the camera, with her hair in a bun and wearing a professional blazer.]

by Sarah Radcliffe
MBA Professionalism Committee

“You can’t be neutral on a moving train” – Howard Zinn

Last week I attended a block party and met some new neighbors. In response to the “What do you do?” question, I said that I am a public interest lawyer, and I work on civil rights issues affecting institutionalized individuals with mental illness. The neighbors’ faces briefly darkened, as if they were looking for a quick exit strategy. Then their faces perked up when the husband landed on the seemingly appropriate response: “You must have a heart of gold!” I could hardly contain my annoyance. I don’t need a heart of gold to do meaningful, interesting work. It’s a privilege to do what I do. The conversation topic was quickly changed, and then they politely excused themselves.

When I look at my children, their friends, their soccer games, field trips, summer camps, and music lessons, I am struck by the contrast between their innocence, happiness, and privilege, and the profound suffering that I encounter daily in my work. So many of my clients were already discarded by the time they reached my children’s tender ages. They were abused and neglected, they were poor; many of them were in foster care and then institutionalized in youth detention centers. They experienced trauma, they developed mental illnesses. At every juncture, they were pushed farther out of sight and out of mind. Their suffering was hidden and contained. They were put in locked institutions, and then in solitary confinement within those institutions. That is what we do with the people that, as a society, we choose to discard.

People in locked institutions are so far removed from our collective awareness that even mentioning them causes my neighbors to turn away. For my family, it’s a little different. I don’t share gory details, but I do talk about my work at the dinner table. My children know that I feel passionately about my work, and sometimes they see me cry. I hope they choose not to insulate themselves in a bubble of privilege and affluence, and pretend that poverty and injustice are only occurring in faraway places. I don’t expect my children to become civil rights attorneys, but whether they grow up to be carpenters, teachers, or dentists, I want them to be people who don’t shrink from other people’s suffering. I want them to have the stamina to stomach sadness and unfairness. I want them to be able to get past the discomfort and find genuine interest – “What happened to you? … Why are you sad?” I hope that when they encounter misery, they will have the strength to say, “Tell me your story. I can handle it.”

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