Sparking Empathy by Jerilyn C. Burke

Sparking Empathy
By Jerilyn C. Burke
empathy: noun
1. the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself
I often ascribe feelings to objects when I speak to my children about them. “This shoe wants to be with his best friend.” “It’s time to put these toys away. They’ve worked so hard and want a rest.” “Can you put this block back with the rest of his family?” “Ouch! That banging hurts the table. It wants to be treated well so that it will look nice for a long time.” “That doll looks uncomfortable. Let’s make her cozy.” 
I’m not sure where I learned to do this. Perhaps it was suggested by an early childhood article, book, or colleague [Editor: LifeWays encourages this practice with young children because they already perceive everything as alive prior to “waking up” around the time of the change of teeth]. Perhaps it came through intuition or observation. Probably a combination of all of the above. What I do know is that the children respond to it. Looking at our daily objects this way, giving them feeling, can create sparks of empathy in our children. “But mom,” my six-year old daughter turns to me after I have stated that a certain object does not want to be thrown, “It’s not really real, right? It can’t really feel, right?”  I reply, “Hmmm… well, don’t you like to be treated well? In our family we care for our things.” 
For those of you who know me, it would not be a surprise to learn that I am a huge fan of Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. Magic? Tidying? Japanese? Ping! Ping! Ping! I have spent over 10 years of my life in Japan, a majority being in my youth. It is a culture that understands the value of cleanliness, simplicity, and reverence. 
When I was back in Japan in my early twenties, my dear friend Junco commented to me, “You must like to clean. You seem to clean a lot.” “I don’t like to clean! I just like to have things neat.” I have found that when my environment is in order, I can relax and think more clearly.  And when my space is cleared, I have the freedom to create something new (often a purposeful new mess!).
I think cleaning often gets a bad rap. I am reminded of a line in Rose Mulligan’s poem:
Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better 
To paint a picture, or write a letter….
Yes, unless all your painting supplies were grimy and your favorite stationary was buried somewhere. The message I get from the poem is that there is so much life to live that you shouldn’t spend all your time cleaning and tidying. I agree! I also agree that life feels pretty good when your surroundings are comfortable, so it’s important to have a balance. Kondo makes the distinction between cleaning and tidying: “Cleaning is the act of confronting nature; tidying is the act of confronting yourself.” (Pause. Think about that for a moment.) But, ugh, making things neat can be such drudgery! Yes, but it doesn’t have to be and, best of all, it can help foster a sense of empathy and gratitude for what we have in our lives.
In Kondo’s book, she encourages you to only keep things that “spark joy.” You take each item that you own in your hands, even bringing it close to your heart, and you develop a sense of whether that item sparks joy or not. If it does, you keep it; if it doesn’t, you let it go, making sure to thank it for all that it has done, even if all that it has done was teach you that you didn’t really need it after all. She states that your things want to be of service to you. If they are not, they want to be let go. Once you free them, maybe these things will find their way to people who will cherish them, or maybe they will be laid to rest. Either way, they will be released from the life of limbo they have led in the back of your closet or cupboard. When you read Kondo’s book, it is apparent that she perceives objects through an anthropomorphic lens. This is not so uncommon in Japan, as Shinto is a major spiritual practice in which there is a belief that everything has a soul or spirit. Kondo seems to have a special connection to this aspect, perhaps cultivated during her youth as a Shinto shrine maiden. Her ability to empathize with objects is impressive, and her book invites its readers to awaken this kind of perceptibility as well. After reading both The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up and her second book Spark Joy, I too cannot help but look at my items in this way. What I thought was just helpful in getting through to children (“Please place this book back with his friends…”) is also helping me with my things! “This dress wants to be worn. I know someone who would appreciate it. If not, I’ll donate it.” Or, “Wow. The things in this drawer look really unhappy.”  Setting things right has a wonderfully freeing and satisfying effect and lightening your load allows more time to not tidy (or “dust”).
I am merely giving you a taste of the insights found in Marie Kondo’s books. She presents many new ways of looking at things. Okay, I’ll share one more: You have to make space for new things to come in to your life. The things that may be seeking you may not be able to enter your life if there isn’t a space for them. Doesn’t thinking about that make you want to look around you (and within you!) for things to let go of that are no longer necessary? Physical and emotional baggage alike! I think that’s definitely part of the magic. 
In the end, learning what sparks joy and how to let go of the things that don’t is a process. When we look through the lens of empathy, we gain a better appreciation of our things, creating a desire to care for them properly, making a comfortable home full of love and thoughtfulness. 
Jerilyn Burke lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylfvania and attended the LifeWays Training in Asheville, North Carolina.
Kondo, Marie. Spark Joy. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2016. Print.
Kondo, Marie. The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014. Print.
Littleton, C. Scott. Understanding Shinto. London: Watkins Publishing, 2011. Print.