My dad lived in Florida and one particularly hot summer, he traded his air conditioning unit for a watermelon. Not because he was not feeling the 95-degree weather, but because he felt his neighbor was in greater need of comfort. He felt that accepting the watermelon would make his neighbor feel better about his gift.
My dad came by empathic thinking instinctively and continually took it to dizzying heights. He was one of a kind.
Or was he?
Last year, I had the amazing experience that comes with attending a TED conference. One of the talks at that conference was certainly more dramatic than my dad's simple act of kindness but spoke to that same amazing kindness. In this case it came from from a man’s commitment to the tenets of his religion.
In this TED talk, New York Times reporter Arand Giridharadas, spoke about his book “The True American” – the true story of Raisuddin Bhuiyan, a Bangladesh Air Force officer who came to America to study and work in technology.
Days after 9/11, an avowed American Terrorist named Mark Stroman, walked into the Texas minimart where Bhuiyan had found temporary work and shot him, nearly killing him. Two other Middle Eastern men in the area were not so lucky that day. Stroman asked each one if they were American and then shot them.
These two did not survive.
Bhiyan survived and 10 years after the shooting participated in an Islamic pilgrimage. He decided that he he needed to publicly forgive Stroman in the name of his Muslim religion and its notion of mercy. He left his job and for one year he waged a legal battle with the State of Texas to have his attacker spared from the death penalty.
So, what about Livermore?
I run an organization called Innovation Tri-Valley Leadership Group. Last year the Tri-Valley school superintendents told us that their schools are now facing some of the problems we have heard about in other areas, most notably Silicon Valley.
There is tremendous pressure on students, often innocently created by parents, resulting in students being depressed and having suicidal thoughts. We heard that some parents were so highly competitive they discouraged collaboration - even helping a friend with their homework.
Education leaders worry that students are being drained of their empathetic thinking – that kindness and sharing were often discouraged in the pursuit of being the very best.
Empathy is important to a community and to humanity as a whole and on June 25th we will strive to illuminate just that.
At a time when national politics seem disturbingly unempathetic, can we make a dent in the narcissism that seems to resonate so well with some? Can we be like an old man in Florida offering his comfort to someone who needs it more? Or a Muslim in America taking a year of his life to save the man who tried to kill him?
Well, that is the power of TED. These talks have the power to expand our frame of reference – and with that the power to change an individual, and ultimately a community, for the better.