by Fran Withrow
Have you seen the “Be Kind” signs around Richmond? Great idea. If only it were that simple: just decide to exude kindness and presto! Everyone gets along.
We all know that doesn’t happen. So how do we become a more compassionate community? We might start by reading Jamil Zaki’s “The War For Kindness.”
This thoughtful book offers hope that we can become a kinder world, despite our many differences. Zaki theorizes that empathy is not ingrained, but we can train ourselves to be more compassionate toward others. He bases his ideas on extensive research: some from decades ago, others he has conducted himself or with his students. (He is a professor of psychology at Stanford.)
There are many factors that influence how kind we are. Genetics, our environment, life experiences, personal connections, media, and technology are just a few of the variables affecting our ability to be empathic. Fortunately, we are malleable, and we can deliberately work to change ourselves to become more (or less) caring. For instance, we can hate other groups in a generic sort of way, but Zaki states that befriending a member of that group can alter our perception of the group as a whole. An awareness of our fluidity is the first step toward change.
I was delighted to see that reading fiction can encourage empathy when readers take on the perspective of others. You must read Zaki’s account of Changing Lives, a book group for convicts in Massachusetts. They meet every two weeks, sitting alongside the judge who sentenced them, to discuss reading material. The program has already seen a reduction in the number of parolees who end up back in jail.
What about people who care too much? Nurses, teachers, and social workers can quickly become burnt out if they do not figure out how to balance empathy with self-care. Zaki shares a personal story relating to his daughter Alma’s premature birth and the courage it takes to be an Intensive Care Nurse. These nurses, who lose patients on a regular basis, must find ways to nurture themselves so they can continue to be there for others.
Zaki’s discussion of kindness with regard to police work is timely, to say the least. In the past few decades, he says, officers have been trained in a warrior mentality, so every time they approach a stopped car, they must assume the occupants are armed. Sue Rahr in the state of Washington is attempting to change that attitude. Her training focuses on police seeing themselves as the caretakers of their community. While her work is not without flaws, it may be the gateway to a new relationship between police and those they serve.
The kindness of one person can make a difference. We can train people to increase their empathy. Technology can help or hinder compassion. Too much empathy can be as crippling as too little. Whew. There’s a lot here to digest. Go check it out. And then, maybe, go get yourself a “Be Kind” sign.
“The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World”
By Jamil Zaki
Penguin Random House