While driving to work last month, I caught the last part of Dr. Brian Goldman’s interview with Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current. Goldman was there to present his most recent book, The Power of Kindness. The conversation had reached a point of warmth and intimacy: Ms. Tremonti’s voice had softened and it was as if the exchange were taking place in a quiet café, as though it were just the two of them, and they were friends.
Goldman’s voice was instantly recognizable because I’ve often heard him on CBC’s Home Run, chatting with host Sue Smith about the medical issue of the moment, and even more frequently on his own radio show, White Coat, Black Art. As a broadcaster, Goldman is authoritative and captivating. He communicates with energy and intellectual acuity, and I’ve always found him to be engaging. You can hear how invested he is in having his message reach the listener.
But on this day, there was something else at work. The conversation between Tremonti and Goldman had moved far beyond science, medicine and professionalism, to the anecdotal and the personal, and as it did so, it effected a change in him and in the mood of the broadcast. Goldman was speaking about some of the unforgettable people he encountered while doing the research for The Power of Kindness.
The impetus for the book was a single, self-directed question: Am I a kind soul?
After decades of successful medical practice and a meaningful life as a son, father, life partner and friend, Goldman was engaged in soul-searching, concerned that in every aspect of his life, he had failed to offer the empathy that was required—that he had not always been kind, or kind enough.
In search of answers, he set out to travel the landscape of empathy, starting with the science and components of empathy, which can be broken down this way:
- Affective or emotional empathy: which refers to the capacity to feel the emotions of others.
- Cognitive empathy: which is having the sense of how another person is feeling. Cognitive empathy is also referred to as perspective taking because it involves the ability to see things from the perspective of another person.
- Affective concern or compassion empathy or empathic concern: with which we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.
He then placed himself in the hands of a team of neuroscientists working on the cutting edge of empathy research, submitting himself to empathy testing, including an MRI.
While this part of the book takes us to the utterly fascinating, if deeply disquieting, realm of psychopaths, narcissists and Machiavellians, it’s the following chapters, which introduce us to exceptionally empathic men and women, that are the most compelling.
Thus, we meet Mark Wafer, who at one time owned six Tim Horton’s restaurants in Ontario, providing gainful employment to a significant percentage of people with a disability— 127 in 20 years—establishing his own brand of affirmative action with real heart and business acumen. A clue to Wafer’s capacity to feel for those with disabilities must certainly be rooted in the fact that he is legally deaf, having been born with only 20% hearing.
Next, we meet Mike Keane and Paul Mackin (“the kindest bartender in the world”), co-owners of O’Hara’s Irish Pub which is in the vicinity of Ground Zero in Manhattan, and has become the bar many cops and firefighters go to on each 9/11 anniversary.
We learn of the extraordinary life and work of Naomi Feil, who developed a method of approaching and interacting with people suffering from dementia, called VALIDATION. Goldman explains how:
“When the method works, Validation reduces stress and agitation. Its secret is the very essence of empathy, for success depends on developing an ability to see things from the chaotic and disoriented view of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Part technique and part philosophy, Validation is based on a disruptive premise: Instead of trying to bring the person with dementia back to reality, it’s better for them and for us as caregivers and family members if we enter theirs.”
Goldman refers to the practitioners of the Validation method as soul whisperers.
Another kind of soul whisperer we learn of is Brazilian Shalla Monteiro, a luminous woman with an “unwordly” empathic ability. Shalla’s story is closely tied to that of Raimundo Arruda Sobrinho, a homeless poet who lived on the streets of São Paolo for thirty-five years. When Shalla met Raimundo, he was settled on a busy centre median, in the downtown core—an impossible place. Despite his physical state, which almost anyone else would find repulsive, Shalla was moved to approach him and to talk to him.
As Goldman describes it:
“To reach Raimundo, Shalla had to cross a busy boulevard to build a bridge to the island where he lived. Instinctively she understood that to get along with Raimundo, she had to flip perspectives and see things from the poet’s point of view.”
This is how Shalla learned that Raimundo was poet, and was able to build a relationship with him and, eventually, create a Facebook page that went viral, and led to his reunion with his family [see the affecting short film of these events, The Conditioned].
Through her ability to transform feelings and ideas into action, Shalla Monteiro is the incarnation of affective concern or compassion empathy or empathic concern, and it feels good to imagine many more people like her walking the Earth.
Science tells us that humans are hard-wired for empathy, but it struck me, while reading the book, that many of the people Brian Goldman presents can be said to have walked a mile in the shoes of those they have been drawn to help. There’s the challenge of deafness in Mark Wafer’s life which he’s had to overcome every day; the fact that pub owner Mike Keane was at the bar when the planes hit the towers on 9/11 and experienced intimately the pain of that day’s endless horrors; and the fact that Naomi Feil actually grew up in the Montefiore Home for the aged, in Cleveland, Ohio—where her parents both worked and where the family also resided—and wandered its hallways as a child, encountering the loneliness and isolation of its elderly residents, who were often, also, her friends.
What happens, then, when there isn’t enough empathy to go around? In countries with rapidly aging populations, this is especially worrisome, and it’s at this point that The Power of Empathy takes a surprising turn. Preoccupied with the same problem of isolation and loneliness that defined Naomi Feil’s life’s work and moved Shalla Monteiro to become Raimundo’s lifelong friend, Goldman heads to Japan—which has one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world—to investigate its fascination with human robot interaction (HRI).
As in most societies, the care of the elderly in Japan is hugely problematic and mostly underpaid. In an effort to alleviate the problem, Japan has placed its hopes in the development of companion robots. In an engrossing chapter called “The Kindest Robot”, Goldman leads us through the corridors of cutting edge robotics to its applications in senior care facilities, where we meet personal robots like Honda’s humanoid robot Asimo; Shigeki Sugano’s prototype carebot TWENDY-ONE; Paro, the therapeutic animal robot (a small, fluffy white seal); Telenoid (a robot which I found creepy when I looked it up on Youtube); and lastly, ERIKA, a Geminoid, the masterpiece and work in progress of robotics genius Hiroshi Ishiguro and his team.
Though I find it completely counter-intuitive, it appears that human/robot interaction is not nearly as strange as one might think, and that among the Japanese, at least, it’s a relationship that brings comfort to people of all ages. There’s a profound question here about loneliness and human nature itself, and a mystery surrounding something the Japanese call sonzai-kan, which refers to the presence that is created by another human, or by a robot.
Goldman’s take-away from his experience in Japan is that:
“The antidote for loneliness is sonzai-kan. The ultimate questions I’ve travelled to Japan to answer is whether or not androids built by humans can fill the void, and if so to what extent. It turns out that there doesn’t have to be an equal partnership between humans and machine. Humans are biologically programmed to seek companionship where it exists and to manufacture it where it doesn’t.”
It’s painful for me to imagine a sick, isolated or elderly person, bedridden or otherwise dependent on the care of others, being tended to by a machine—no matter how humanoid in appearance— and conversing with it. I want to believe that nothing can replace the presence of another human being.
It’s just one of the things Goldman’s book has left me to ponder. It’s strange that a book about empathy hasn’t so much evoked empathic feelings, or brought me to walk in someone’s shoes, as it has offered me a sweeping view of the landscape of empathy, and left me with a feeling of optimism and a sense of duty and connection to others.
NOTES TO READERS:
While preparing this post, I looked the book up in the Library’s catalogue, and was surprised to find another book, this one by Piero Ferruci, with exactly the same title. It may very well be wonderful, though I haven’t (yet) read it. Be sure to check the author’s name if you put in a reservation request on Goldman’s book.
and Part 2
- Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy program in schools to develop cognitive empathy.
- Ex Machina: A thought-provoking film about our relationship with android robots.
- On the subject of virtual reality as “an empathy machine“, see Chris Milk’s Ted Talk
and also Clouds Over Sidra.