Dexter Carter may be a small kid in fourth grade, but behind his thick, black-framed glasses is a boy who possesses wisdom beyond his years.
As a judge for Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary’s 4-H/Tropicana Speech Contest, I was privileged to be one of three judges to listen to 12 young speech superstars and determine who would advance to the countywide competition May 16.
It took less than three minutes for Dexter to rock my world. He delivered a thought-provoking, concise speech on the empathy our world needs.
And what is empathy?
Well, as Dexter explained, it’s the way we can understand the feelings and thoughts of others. Or, as most people know it, it’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It serves as a highway to kindness.
The gist of what Dexter said is we can spread empathy a little bit like the common cold (but let’s maybe leave the fever and the runny nose out of this one).
First, we have to practice empathy.
If someone makes a seemingly mean-spirited comment and your feelings of tension, anger or despair threaten to bubble over into an outburst, take a breath.
Did they mean what they said in the way you’re interpreting it, or is this emotional spike clouding your understanding of the situation?
If you can’t figure it out for yourself, ask them. The person who can best answer the question is the person from whom the sentiment is coming.
The second step in Dexter’s master plan for empathy is spreading empathy to others. Dialogues and conversations about feelings and emotions can open the door to understanding one another. If you spread what it means to be empathetic to someone else, he or she can share that understanding.
The last part of Dexter’s plan is to start the process over. Be empathetic yourself, and then spread that empathy to others. Kindness is contagious, after all.
Too often, we get so caught up in ourselves and our own world of problems we forget other people have problems, too. Understanding the people who walk this planet with us is the only way for us to grow, and the lack of it may very well destroy us — emotionally or otherwise.
The day I found out my dad died, my friend asked me to help her move. I didn’t say “No, my dad just died.” I drove over with my SUV and helped her move her from one apartment to another during a time of personal crisis for her.
I didn’t help her move her out of any sense of wanting to distract myself or personal obligation or to stroke my own ego. I helped her move because I could understand what it felt like to be backed into a corner and running out of options, even if I had never experienced exactly what she had gone through herself.
I didn’t want to shut another door in her face.
So, although these speeches were all fantastic, Dexter’s speech stood out to me and the other judges on the basis that empathy is something so simple but so lacking in our daily life.
It’s a call to action.
If a fourth grader can clearly see what we’re missing as adults at this stage in his life, we should be getting our act together.
We need to be the role models, not the other way around.
Thanks for the reminder, Dexter.
Let’s spread the word. Be there for each other. Be kind to each other. Be empathetic.
Andrew Atkins is a staff writer for the East County Observer. Contact him at [email protected].