I’m not entirely sure whether the reported words of Iain Duncan Smith recently are entirely right when it is said that this member of parliament has been heard to say that he thinks he could live on £53 a week as benefit changes have swept across the country but the message that has come out of the reporting has been the fact that yet another MP has believed that they can step into the shoes of the general public despite wearing the coat of privilege that their office affords them; the coat that colours the picture that they see and the coat that means that even when they may try to sympathise with the public they can never truly empathise with the fabric of the society who they try to represent. In the case of Mr Duncan Smith even if he does believe he could live on £53 a week (which he probably could in the shorter term even if not in the longer term) he is supported unconsciously by the fact that he can always return to his wealthier lifestyle and does not in reality have to use that £53 to look for jobs on expensive public transport, whilst bringing up children at the same time as struggling to eat healthily to avoid sapping the NHS later on when poor diet might lead to physical and mental health problems and other consequences that longitudinal £53 a week survival inflicts. There is no reality then in the assertion by Mr Duncan Smith that he can live on £53 a week because there is little understanding – ie. there is no empathy.
Empathy, therefore, as opposed to sympathy, is a critical skill, or even an awareness to create in our children and young people from an early age today so that they too don’t make similar mistakes like the aforesaid politician who is not alone in his ranks or even in today’s society. Empathy aligns with understanding and sits alongside respect. It holds hand with responsibility and connects with care and compassion. It is as much a gift as it is a skill that can be nurtured and learnt as much as it is an intrinsic quality. It has no place in the ranks of pretence but genuinely supports and provides succour to those it surrounds. Empathy builds up, walks in another’s shoes, and sits in the frame of selfless reference. It is a desirable quality and relies not only on good communication and heightened imagination but also a critical commitment to sharing.
To encourage children to be empathetic then, so they do not grow up to make the blunders of Iain Duncan-Smith, we, as parents, need to encourage open communications, to listen to them, to take the time out to walk with them, to help them understand, to encourage them to step out of their own framework of reference and appreciate that there are other points of view, to see the world from different perspectives, to share others experiences, to feel pain and to not cower from awkward situations but to embrace all circumstances in an open environment of mutual co-operation, learning, support, nurture and love without pretending to be anyone else, or live in pretence that we know anything we don’t know and with acceptance, not subscribing to blame or without taking responsibility.
If these become the principals or the politics which we value and the standards that we sign up to then we become the politicians and empathy becomes our ruling party governing our lives so that we thrive rather than purely live.