Use It or Lose It Applies to Empathy
I have yet to meet anyone who has not had this experience: they find themselves in an unexpected situation especially one where someone might be in need or one where they witnessed someone do something mean towards a waitress or checkout person and in that moment they freeze. The moment or situation quickly passes and afterward they wonder why they did nothing and even begin to feel a little guilty for not doing anything.
Remember these are adults who have been around the block so to speak, meaning they have experienced this type of situation before but not on a regular basis. Why do they regret their inaction? It is usually because there was something inside of them- call it whatever you wish-that told them that they should have helped.
Here is alternative example that I experienced. I work two days a week in a office in downtown Albany. I have my now very predictable route that I take that includes an intersection with a traffic light. Recently, there has been someone standing on the side of the road holding a sign saying: Jobless, hungry vet-please help!” Now on some days the light is green and there is traffic behind me and it is cold outside. For me to give this person some money requires that I have my money ready, push the button for lowering the window, slow down and hand the money off to the person. This takes some choreographing and planning ahead. It is so easy not to give or help these people; it is so much easier not to help.
I can justify ignoring these people in many ways-they will only use the money for drugs, alcohol, it is encouraging them not to work, I already give to the poor through legitimate charities etc. Many reasons that many people would say is justified.
I decided however that I would make a personal policy-standard operating procedure for myself not to ignore direct solicitations from people like this. I decided not to judge them but to give them the benefit of the doubt that for whatever reason they were doing it for was ok-they had a need and were asking. I decided that whatever I gave would have literally no negative effect on me.
Once I made this my standard operating procedure I then started to look ahead toward the intersection to see if there was a person there. Once I saw the person there, it gave me enough time to get my money ready and the choreography was much easier. In fact just the other day I noticed the homeless person saw me up ahead holding my bill and he put down his sign ahead of time to help make the hand off even smoother.
This experience of mine has an important lesson when it comes to being an empowered bystander: doing good is not an automatic act and it can’t be dependent upon spontaneous action fueled by “will power”. We all know that this is the case even for us adults who have been around the block. When it comes to kids, who haven’t been around the block so to speak, we somehow expect them to “stand up” to bullying when they see it. Maybe to boost them we provide a motivational speaker to make sure that they will. Maybe some of this might work with some kids, but I think it takes more that than. We as adults have to realize that changing any behavior is a little more complicated that just telling kids what to do. Think of what I had to do just to help out someone asking directly for help:
Recognize the situation.
Interpret it as presenting a moral choice.
Thinking ahead and deciding on a personal policy of responding to a request.
Analyzing the difficulty involved.
Deciding on a plan.
Using the plan.
Getting better at it.
If we want to really do something about bullying, we have to drop the idea that changing kids behavior is a simple matter and really make a commitment to understanding what is involved in change and then planning and working on doing what it really takes.