There’s a great rebound after you start tossing out joy

Flower fields at Von Bergen’s Country Market, 9805 Route 173 in Hebron, on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

I have a lasting memory to share.

It was stirred recently by a discussion on NPR radio that focused on an issue important to us all.

Years ago I was part of a university team educating young journalists. My “office” with a desk was in the actual classroom where I helped students with their news stories, due each week.

The students were seniors, facing two semesters of reporting classes. They were truly tested. Not only on writing and reporting skills but also their choice of career.

Lonny Cain

Their news stories were edited by a professor and me and were returned covered in red and green ink. (I was red.) I saw learning in action. The students saw bleeding. It was a stressful final year for many. Your senior year is not a good time to question your career choice.

My memory is simple enough. Me in a balcony seat, front row, watching below as students paraded forward to get the degree they had earned. There was so much pride in the room and within me. Each time I saw a student who survived our classes I shared their pride. I smiled as much as parents and family in the audience.

It was more than pride. It was pure joy. Keyword there ... joy. Which brings me back to the NPR discussion about “empathetic joy” and how it brightens our life.

That means seeing joy in others and understanding why to the extent that you feel the same joy. Empathy. Even better when the joy comes from something you did for another.

The radio guests were urging people to instill such empathy into their lives.

One guest was Jamil Zaki, a Stanford University psychologist who studies empathy and wrote “The War for Kindness, Building Empathy in a Fractured World.”

We are not born with empathy, he says. It is a skill to learn and strengthen. This is not easy, he notes. In fact, it’s much easier to be angry and reject those who are different.

Zaki teaches a class called “Becoming Kinder” with eye-opening homework. Such as asking students to find a way to give money to help someone else versus themselves. Or provide some kind of assistance or support needed by another.

The idea is to nudge students outside the normal comfort zone to connect with others. Perhaps this is homework we all should be assigned.

About his book, Zaki said: “Empathy is in short supply. Isolation and tribalism are rampant. … Studies show that we are less caring than we were even 30 years ago. In 2006, Barack Obama said that the United States is suffering from an ‘empathy deficit.’ Since then, things only seem to have gotten worse.”

He tells of those who have embraced such empathy, including a former neo-Nazi now helping pull people from hate groups and nurses helping each other avoid burnout.

His mission seems especially important now. How else can we bridge the growing gaps between so many factions in our communities and families?

Start with this basic question: Is it fair to judge where people are standing if you don’t know how they got there?

Misery loves company. So true. We love to share our pain and suffering.

Then perhaps it also would be true that joy loves company. Smiles do beget smiles.

And giving joy begets joy.

Lonny Cain, retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa, also was a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet in the 1970s. His Paperwork email is Or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.