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Experiencing Empathy "On a Molecular Level"

Narrative 4

by Cara McClintock-Walsh,

Cara McClintock Walsh

When Professor Cara McClintock-Walsh brought Narrative 4 to Northampton Community College (NCC) in Bethlehem, PA, in March, she knew her colleagues and students would be captivated by the story exchange. What she didn't anticipate was her own experience of feeling empathy, as she puts it, "on a molecular level," and the avalanche of possibilities it would open up. Here is her reflection:

Last year, I enjoyed the privilege of being faculty chair of a generous National Endowment for the Humanities grant that allowed us to offer a full year of cultural programming around a different theme. Our theme last year was "The Good Life: Engaging Questions about Life, The World, and Our Place in It," and I invited Colum McCann to be our keynote speaker. We asked him because he, in his work and his life, believes in the real, deep, transformative power of stories, and in his work and his life shows how stories can help us all cross the barriers we face in our own lives. From the moment he started talking to our students about Narrative 4, we knew we wanted to be a part of N4's efforts and vision.

Narrative 4 is a non-profit organization built on the idea of radical empathy, and it "fosters [this] empathy through the exchange of stories across the world. ...We are helping to develop the next generation of empathetic leaders and citizens."  Mr. McCann believes that "Stories are our true democracy" and only through an exchange of our own stories can we see ourselves as others.  He writes, "In an effort to break down barriers and shatter stereotypes, we encourage people to walk in each other's shoes and prove that not only does every story matter, every life matters." In a story exchange, two people are partnered; they share a personal story with one another; and then they participate in radical empathy by telling their partner's story as their own, using the first person. While an exchange starts at the local level, it can then branch out into the larger community, across states, and eventually between nations.

For our story exchange, we gathered together faculty members from all different disciplines; deans; our vice president of academic affairs; our college president; grants officers; and students from our Honors Program, Global Studies Program, and our Residence Life staff. While I've known about N4's story exchanges for some time now, I had no idea how powerful they really were until I participated in one.  The exchange taught me a lot about myself as a listener, and really challenged me to quiet my own ideas in an effort not only to listen to my partner's story, but to absorb it as fully as I could. The exchange made me feel empathy on a molecular level: when I heard my partner tell her story, I understood it, but when I told her story as my own, I felt it, and was so moved by the story that I was overcome by emotion.  I have worked at NCC for over 12 years, and I felt like I got to know my colleagues better in this one day than I have during my entire tenure here. Perhaps NCC Honors student Sara Reichard put it best: "Before Narrative 4, I thought empathy was simply an idea, a way of thinking. Now, I know it is a way of being." 

One of the great strengths of a community college is our diversity-we attract and welcome students from every conceivable walk of life. At Northampton Community College, we like to say, "Community is our middle name." For this reason, we are particularly excited by N4's possibilities on our campus. What would a story exchange mean to criminal justice majors and the incarcerated? To our nursing majors and their patients? To our Global Studies students or Intercultural Communication students who are about to travel to different countries and encounter new cultures? To our education majors who work in our childcare center? To our funeral services majors and the families they serve? To our adult learners and our traditional students? To our refugee and immigrant students? To our Honors students and our developmental students? Indeed, to our faculty and administrators? Narrative 4 not only reminds us that we are enriched by our diverse population, it challenges us to put these students in conversation with one another. We can't wait to get started.

--Cara McClintock-Walsh, PhD  

Cara McClintock-Walsh is a Professor of English at Northampton Community College, where she is Coordinator of the Honors Program.  She earned her bachelor's degree with honors in Literature from Gettysburg College, and her MA and PhD in Literature from Boston University.  Her dissertation is entitled, "No Country: Anarchy and Motherhood in the Modernist Novel," and she has presented chapters from her dissertation at the Futures of American Studies Conference at Dartmouth College and at the Maverick Voices International Conference in at Durham University in Durham, England.  Her recent scholarship involves examining the connections between Irish and African American theatre.  She has published articles on W.B Yeats and Raymond Carver and has presented at many conferences, both on literary and pedagogical topics.