Opinion. Attitudes and Empathy by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Attitudes and Empathy by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Today, in the weekly section of Hal O’Leary on Yareah: Attitudes and Empathy. Enjoy your Saturday, friends. Art is everywhere!


Photo by K Whiteford

The ability to meet life successfully has to do with ‘attitudes’, the attitude one has toward oneself and the attitude one has toward others. They can be positive or negative. A negative attitude toward others will often create a negative attitude toward the self and vice versa. Focused, as our schools are, on the intellectual needs of the student, the need to address the emotional needs as well often goes unaddressed, most glaringly in the early grades. The importance of this cannot be overstated, for it is here that life-long attitudes are determined. During the six years I spent working with students in the first three grades, I used Creative Dramatics as means of addressing those needs. I am convinced that we are born hard-wired for empathy. Empathy or the ability to feel with others is the key for the development of positive attitudes toward the self and others. A failure to recognize the dangers in suppressing empathy in children with an overly competitive environment created by many teachers can lead to alienation and unhappiness. I’ve found that an exercise using Creative Dramatics is an excellent means for combating these dangers and aiding in the development of positive attitudes both toward the self and others.

Creative Dramatics for children is simply an exercise in which the students are asked to reenact a story making up their lines as the story unfolds. Observing the student audience, the irrepressible tendency on their part to physically imitate the actions and expressions of the actors becomes obvious. This suggests that there must be a visceral reflex on the part of the observer, which is the basis for the empathy or emotion that determines attitude. This is in accord with the James/Lange theory of emotion that holds that physical action precedes emotion rather than the other way round. We don’t tremble because we are afraid, we sense fear because and only after we tremble. The theory further states that our tendency to imitate that which we observe produces the physical response that in turn produces the emotion. This, then, is the basis for the emotional communication that takes place in the theater or in films. This tendency to imitate that which we observe can be shown by the posture of anyone gazing at the Washington Monument. They will, most often, stand erect in imitation of the monument, with an accompanying sense of pride, suggesting again that physical reflex leads to an emotional response. Thus, Creative Dramatics becomes an ideal medium for addressing the emotional needs of the student. It is in the development of an ever stronger empathy that our attitudes toward the self and others are formed. Let me demonstrate this with an exercise I developed using a scene from that most wonderful movie, THE WIZARD OF OZ.

In a typical third grade class, we would begin by reviewing the movie from beginning to end. After a quick review of the whole story, the real fun began with frantically waving hands eager to take part in acting it out. Of course, time would not permit any possibility of acting out the entire story, so I chose

the brief segment in which Dorothy and company have returned to the Wizard, having obtained the Witch’s broom, expecting to have their wishes granted only to hear the Wizard shout,” COME BACK

TOMORROW”. It is then that Toto, pulling back the curtain, exposes the Wizard as a fraud. The Wizard, then, in an attempt to extricate himself, gives Scarecrow a diploma, Tin Man a watch, and Lion a medal.

Once our actors have acted out this first scene and are happily leaving the Wizard, I intercept them outside,

“Did I just see you leave the Wizard’s palace? Tell me how you got in and what happened.” I’d ask.

At this point they would tell me what they had wished for and show me what they had been given. I would then tell them that a piece of paper is not a brain, a watch is not a heart and a medal doesn’t bestow courage. I would suggest that they should go back and challenge the Wizard to explain. This they would angrily do.

“Did you grant our wishes or didn’t you?” they would demand.

Rarely, if ever, was the Wizard able to satisfy them, and I would put the question to the class. Did the Wizard grant their wishes or not? If he didn’t, our story is a tragedy, and if he did, how? Once again, rarely could they come up with an answer, and I would send them home to think about it. When they returned the following week, quite often one or more of them would have arrived at the idea that Scarecrow, Tin man and Lion had what they wished for but just didn’t know it. I would then ask them how that could possibly be. How could they have these things and not know it? This question then became an opportunity to teach a lesson rarely approached in the average classroom, a lesson that dealt directly with attitudes.

I would first deal with Scarecrow (Another name for Dummy). How could he possibly think he had no brain? My approach would go something like this.

“Is there anyone here that has never made a mistake, have you never been asked a question by the teacher you couldn’t answer or answered incorrectly?” I’d ask.

After looking around to the others, they usually agreed that, yes, they had. I would then ask how they felt when that happened. The general consensus was that they felt the whole class and the teacher must be thinking, DUMMY. Then, of course, Mommy would want to know how they did in school that day and when told, might mutter DUMMY, and she, of course, would tell Daddy who might shout DUMMY. Now, should this happen too often, I would explain to them, they might just get up one morning, look in the mirror and think, DUMMY, convinced that indeed, they had no brain.

This brings us to Tin Man.

“Is there anyone here who has never felt lonely, who has felt at times that everyone had friends but me”? I’d ask.

Again, we would get the looking around before committing, and with the first hand raised, all would gradually concede that, yes, they had experienced loneliness or a lack of love. The heart is the symbol of love, I would tell them, so Tin Man being all alone with no one to love or be loved by, might indeed think that he had no heart.

So we come to Cowardly Lion, and I would first ask what the opposite for cowardice was. They would, almost always say, bravery.

“What is bravery”? I would ask.

“Not being afraid”, was the usual reply.

“Is there anyone here who is brave, afraid of nothing?” I’d continue.

At this point, one or two boys and an occasional girl might raise their hands. I would press them to convince us that they were really afraid of nothing as I made my way down the aisle to beside one of their desks, and after a quiet moment, turn and shout BOO. They would of course be frightened, and the class would laugh. If the students who had raised their hands could laugh with the class, it was a glorious moment, for it meant that they finally realized fear is a part of everyone’s nature, and that they no longer had to foolishly pretend to be unafraid. What a lesson to learn. I would go on to explain that being brave is to act even though you’re afraid.

Consider what other lessons might have been learned with this forty-five minute exercise. It becomes a reaffirmation of their hard-wired empathy now under assault by an indifferent and highly competitive environment. This exercise helps the student to understand, both intellectually and emotionally, how ridiculous the idea of the “rugged-individualist” so prized by many in our society, really is. Such a concept represents a risk of losing the very humanity that preserves us. It fosters an attitude destructive of empathic concern for the welfare of all human kind. We are our brother’s keeper whether we wish to be or not. This exercise helps the student arrive at a better understanding of the self in relation to others, and through that understanding, a tolerance so necessary for both diversity and harmony in human relations. Recognizing that everyone is subject to error, loneliness and fear leads to a more positive attitude toward self, as well as, a tolerance of others. This is but one example. Children’s literature is replete with stories that teach all manner of lessons that have to do with our emotional well-being.

Creative Dramatics, while it requires no special training, does require creativity on the part of the teacher and most importantly, a love and respect for the uniqueness of each child. This teacher has the opportunity and obligation to help each of his or her charges develop a positive attitude toward the self and others. Only with such a development can we hope to realize the tolerance so needed in today’s confused world.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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