Cornies: Empathy’s importance rises to the surface

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Fred Rogers, the late American children’s TV host, credited his mother for the simple strategy he used to help children deal with public disaster and calamity.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping,’ ” he said.

In Houston over the past week, we’ve seen plenty of people helping. Whether it was rescuing stranded homeowners from their rooftops or front porches, relocating nursing home residents to higher ground or helping those who’d lost everything find food and shelter, Texans rallied to the cause of mutual aid and emergency assistance.

When 911 phone lines went unanswered and first responders became overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, impromptu fleets of boats and convoys of pickup trucks filled the void.

Empathy rose to the surface, even as disaster rained down upon the Lone Star state’s biggest city. Lives were saved. Courage was kindled. The will to survive, bent by the wind, rain and loss of material possessions, found its footing again.

The question now is how long the goodwill can last.

While many scientists believe that empathy is hard-wired into our brains — that most people, in the absence of trauma, have an innate ability to sense other people’s emotions, imagine their thoughts and feelings, and respond with concern, help and generosity — our capacity for empathy does have limits.

As storm-battered Houstonians move from immediate peril to dealing with the long-term physical and psychological damage the storm has inflicted — let alone the years-long process of reconstruction — community spirits will gradually become a lot less buoyant, despite the best efforts of federal and state disaster agencies. The capacity of most citizens for empathy will reach its limits and the more primal instincts of survival and pragmatic self-preservation will kick in.

It’s important to note the scale of the south Texas disaster. While many lives were saved and the initial death toll limited to about three dozen, that number is rising as ebbing waters reveal the true magnitude of the tragedy.

Moody’s Analytics has estimated that property losses due to Hurricane Harvey will run as high as US$65 billion, while economic losses will amount to another $10 billion. Weather forecaster AccuWeather pegs the total damage as much higher: up to $160 billion.

In Canada, a nation with one-tenth the population of the United States, the costs of recent natural disasters have been similarly daunting: C$9.5 billion in direct and indirect costs for the Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016; $5.2 billion for the Alberta floods of 2013. The costs associated with this year’s wildfires in B.C., smaller by comparison, are still mounting.

Remarkable in all of these scenarios, however, is the capacity of private citizens for empathic action. At times of disaster, we realize just how important it is to our national fabric — and to our sense of what it means to be a part of local and national communities.

When real empathy makes its appearance, other divisions — race, class, creed, religion and others — tend to melt away. They don’t disappear entirely; they are, however, overshadowed by the fact that we’re all human. That we all bleed.

The importance of empathy in human relationships has even reached our boardrooms. Many businesses are discovering that empathy is a trait just as desirable in workplaces as more traditional industry related skills.

Anne Loehr, a Washington-based consultant and speaker, regularly tells her business clients that the cultivation of empathy in the workplace setting leads to increased performance within highly diverse teams. Among the benefits of amped-up empathy at work are better understanding of co-workers and customers, better communication and clarity within groups, and an increased understanding of others’ motivations and points of view. For leaders, she says, empathy is essential.

Building empathy, Loehr says, includes listening (real listening, without interruption), being fully present with others and acknowledging non-verbal communication, trying to build bridges with people whose beliefs we don’t share, and challenging oneself to have deeper conversations with others, especially about issues we tend to avoid.

As a city, how are we building our capacity for empathy? Can we find additional forums and outlets to increase that capacity? Wouldn’t building that capability help us find more effective solutions to persistent problems such as racism, xenophobia, poverty, crime and addictions?

The capacity for empathy among Houstonians, regardless of their politics or privilege, saved hundreds of lives this week. Those of us thousands of kilometres away witnessed the immediate and tangible impacts of “people who are helping.”

And in their actions was tucked a powerful reminder of just how important empathy can be in the life — and survival — of a city.

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist. 

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