The Furthest Extension of Human Empathy

The greatest illusion of this world is the illusion of separation. Things you think are separate and different are actually one and the same…We are all one people, but we live as if divided. – Guru Pathik

“Beneath our official titles, positions and identities we are really mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and each of us is somebody’s child.”- Severn Cullis-Suzuki, 11 yr old girl at UN “Girl who silenced the world for five minutes”


Peter Likins, author of A New American Family: A Love Story came to speak at the University of Wisconsin-Madison about the lessons he learned from raising six children, (all adopted) with his partner. I was struck by how he framed adoption as the furthest extension of human empathy- to care for another’s child as if they were your own -which illuminates the Kindred Community tagline – “One Family, One World”. He challenged us to consider where we draw the limitations on our empathy and to explore the origins and reasons of these limitations that we have set.

The truth is that there is something special, divine, and powerful about familial relationships. Familial relationships can be strictly defined as those who are of the same bloodline as yourself, yet the idea of fictive kin, (individuals who are unrelated by birth or marriage whose kinship with another individual is so emotionally strong that they become as much a part of a family as other family members) challenges our boundaries of family and proposes that, in fact, the boundaries of a family can be endless and fluid. As Peter Likins said, we have agency to define this. We define family and I feel fortunate to have friends and mentors who I consider to be just as much my brothers and sisters as my brother and my sister.

The social relations and organization of families are fascinating to me – many families have a more powerful bond than any other relationship (think of John Q, starring Denzel Washington, where a Dad is willing to give his son his heart in order to save his son’s life), they typically share economic and social resources and many try to reciprocally support one another despite differences in power and status. And I apply the model of a family and familial relationships to my outlook on social change.

Most individuals who are working for social change are working with individuals with less privilege than themselves, and this is especially true if you are an adult working with children. Relationships across differences of power and privilege become problematic when the “needs” of the underprivileged define the relationship, and the needs of the privileged are unidentified. True solidarity across difference requires a deep and authentic relationship, which is very different than most activism that involves a one- sided exchange of resources. Building these relationships should be primary, even though these relationships typically take a bit of extra conscious and effort-ful work as we tend to build close relationships with those with similar social identities as us, if deep relationships are valued and constructed, then the “needs” of each individual can be met through the conduit of this relationship. We can meet each others needs as many families do, in a selfless way that at its core is dependent upon the unbreakable bond of unconditional love.

Building these authentic and deep relationships with children can be very challenging. Yet, we can take on Peter Likins challenge to explore the limits of our empathy and attempt to expand our “family” to include more children, people, other creatures, and beings, everything and everyone…maybe empathy is more elastic than we ever thought, and maybe as the quote above notes we really are one and our separation is an illusion!

Let’s reflect on our relationships with children. We can be more conscious of why we are drawn to some children and critically question the source of our challenge to connect with and feel empathy for other children. We can reflect on the relationships we have with children in our family (whether they are cousins,siblings, etc) and push ourselves to see our students and other youth we work with everyday as extended family. Could we someday see each child as a part of our family? How might this affect the way that we relate with children?

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