A friend, fellow frequent traveller and cultural observer was talking recently about the small incidents in life that illustrate the value of empathy and how it helps define what it means to be a human being.
A couple of minutes or so before his plane, which had departed Calgary a half hour late, was to land in Toronto a flight attendant made an announcement to ask a favour. There were, she said, a few fellow passengers on board who were struggling to make their connecting flight to Moncton. As a courtesy to them (and no doubt the other passengers on the waiting flight) the flight attendant asked that if others could just remain in their seats for a minute or two once the plane docked, then the Moncton-bound people could deplane first.
No one would really be inconvenienced by this, and the handful of passengers bound for Moncton, which included a young mother and her baby, would be able to proceed more swiftly to their connection. Courtesy would be served.
And so, when the plane docked at Pearson and the door opened and the seat belt light turned off, almost everyone in the plane summarily ignored the flight attendant’s request and stood up to clog the aisles and ensure that the Moncton-bound passengers would be late. My friend, who was seated towards the front of his plane, says he and the person next to him had stayed seated but could do nothing other than look towards the plane’s business class passengers and ask, out loud “Are all you guys really going to Moncton?”
Their responses, he said, were neither glances of anger nor embarrassment.
“It was pure disinterest,” he said. “It was as if my attempt at admonishment or shaming simply did not make any sense to them. It was kind of shocking.”
Empathy has a number of definitions but all work to illustrate its essence, which is the capacity to share the sadness, happiness or other emotions of fellow human being or, in other words, to know what it feels like to be in their shoes and respond with compassion. It is a commonly accepted public virtue which, while invisible physically, can be illustrated through the every day actions of each of us.
It is an ethic of reciprocity as old as civilization itself, widely illustrated through the “Golden Rule” of treating others the way one aspires to be treated oneself. It is promoted by virtually every faith known to humankind and when it is absent in society, people don’t just miss their flights to Moncton. Capt. Gustav Glibert, the U.S. Army psychologist assigned to interview leading Nazis in the months following the Second World War, put it this way:
“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.”
This year, Cardus will conduct a study in Calgary that will touch on how commonly accepted social virtues such as empathy and its close relatives – mercy, forgiveness, compassion etc. – are incubated and nurtured within our societies and our communities. They are not, as history shows, necessarily inherent to human beings although they are widely considered vital to the progress of civilization which itself, to borrow a phrase, is never more than one generation away from decline if its most cherished virtues are not nurtured and inherited.
Our mission this year is not, however, quite that broad. Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the study of social architecture, will examine the role institutions of faith – temples, mosques, synagogues and churches – play in the development and nurturing of our cultural aesthetic. That the ethereal virtues of the arts are essential to a city’s flourishing is widely accepted.
What we will study is how a parallel intellectual pursuit – the search for what it means to be a human being – can influence not only those engaged in that quest but the culture of the communities within which they do or do not exist.
This, we hope, will further contribute to the health of the Heart of the New West, as we in Calgary describe ourselves. This city has built a reputation for innovation. It leads economically and in public policy development. Its arts community stands in no one’s shadow.
So, we believe, can its soul.
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|date:||February 14, 2011|
|publisher:||The Calgary Beacon|
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