On Empathy and Thriving in a World Turned Turtle

One of the cinematic highlights in the last few years, in my opinion, is the wonderful film Mary Poppins Returns. The color, the music, oh, and Lin Manuel Miranda, the dancing, singing, the hopeful story, Angela Lansbury, and Dick Van Dyke, all coming together to remind us that no matter how dire things look right now, hope exists – even when things look the very most impossible.

But perhaps the mosted, most wonderful scene in the movie is when Mary Poppins and the children visit her cousin Topsy, played in undeniably best form by non other than Meryl Streep, on a day when she (Topsy) has turned turtle. You see, on a particular day of the week, on a particular week of the month, Topsy’s world turns Turtle – everything goes upside down, and there is no way to make sense of anything, until it rights itself again.


In his book Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It, Roman Krznaric explains the nature of empathy, noting that its development in humans begins as soon as we are able to distinguish a difference between “me” and “not me” at a very, very young age. The seeds of “self” and “other” are formed early in our lives, and the capacity for empathy development is deeply connected to the empathy we receive from our caretakers as infants. The empathy that infants and young children receive is a foundational part of our ability to form loving attachments with others. And, (surprise!) the science of attachment and relationships, and their buffering effects on adversity, is one of the key elements of the emerging Sciences of Learning and Development (watch the video), which is currently driving educational reform and will guide our youth development practice in the future.

Empathy has two parts – cognitive and affective. The cognitive part means simply that we are able to take another’s perspective; the ability to see the world through some else’s eyes and develop understanding. The affective part means that we are able to feel the feelings of another person, more than acknowledge them, but actually feel them. In doing so, our emotional response mirrors the other’s, and we are emotionally “in their shoes.” When we have empathy we step out of our own view, into someone else’s view, and share the same emotional response with them.

Empathy is not sympathy or pity- for neither of those require actually taking the perspective and emotions of another. Nor is empathy compassion, despite the common interchangeable use of the two terms. Compassion, literally in the root of the word, means to share suffering (co-passion). But empathy is possible without suffering. Sharing the joy (emotion) of a friend’s success when you know how hard they have worked toward a goal (perspective taking) is an empathetic response. We just tend to use the idea of empathy more as it relates to the hard stuff, rather than the joyous.

So where does promoting empathy fit in our 4-H Thriving Model? I see it clearly in three places: the promotion of pro-social development, transcendant awareness, and emotional regulation. All of these thriving indicators have to do with seeing the self in relationship with the other. What is “me” and what is “not me” is linked by our human ability for empathy. The capacity for empathy can be developed, like any habit. In fact, Krznaric outlines six steps we can all take to develop empathy – both in ourselves and the youth with whom we work.


As of today, we are all still turned turtle. And who knows how long we will be like this, nor what the world will be like on the other side. In an opinion piece in today’s Washington Post entitled “In a War Without Enemies, Can we Keep Hatred at Bay” the author points out the importance of empathy as key to reminding ourselves that there is no “other” and the dangers we face if we lose our ability for empathy and instead begin a litany of blame, finger pointing, and scapegoating.

One thing I know for sure is that we are all in this together. If we are to help each other thrive in a world turned turtle, we have to do all we can to teach, promote, and practice empathy. With youth, yes of course. But with each other, now more than ever.

As Angela Lansbury says: Have you forgotten what it is like… to be a child?

Thriving On,

Mary Arnold

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Thank you Mary! As always, it was very insightful.

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