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Toward a more caring society: Practicing empathy during a pandemic

A conversation with Salima Stanley-Bhanji of Humainologie

Economic CrisisCOVID-19

It is very difficult for vulnerable people to practise social distancing in the crowded Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, advocates say. Photo by Nick Procaylo.

As COVID-19 continues to take its toll around the world, millions are grappling with hardships and challenges. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, or the loss of one’s job, or the loneliness of spatial distancing, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who is not struggling in some way.

Amidst this health crisis and its economic fallout, many in Canada and around the world are turning to mutual aid and online “caremongering” groups to offer and receive support. There are many catalysts that move people to collectively act for mutual aid: necessity, when the state fails to provide sufficient aid and social protection; desire, to find and experience human connection; love, for friends, neighbours, and those in one’s community; and empathy, for those we already know or a complete stranger.

In a society plagued by the logic of neoliberalism, which encourages a turn towards individual interests and an “every person for themselves” mentality, acts of empathy and collective action may seem rare. For instance, some have associated panic buying and hoarding toilet paper during the pandemic with our individualistic culture. But mutual aid also demonstrates how collective interests and a capacity for empathy have not entirely disappeared, and we may still have an opportunity to build upon these promising actions.

To explore the topic further, Canadian Dimension turned to empathy and human connection expert Salima Stanley-Bhanji, a Calgary-based lawyer and filmmaker who leads the not-for-profit Humainologie, an organization dedicated to spreading empathy, increasing inclusion, and reducing discrimination.

What is empathy?

“Empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and imagine what something might be like for that person,” says Stanley-Bhanji. According to her, empathy has three core features: emotion, cognition, and action. “Empathy involves both stepping into oneself in order to tap into one’s own inner world, and stepping outside of oneself, in order to consider what another is experiencing,” she confirms.

Salima Stanley Bhanji of Humainologie. Jager and Kokemor Photography/Calgary.

For example, when learning that an elderly neighbour is fearful of going out to get groceries, one might revert to a similar experience of fear in one’s own life. They would then put aside their personal concerns and imagine what this neighbour might be going through. Stanley-Bhanji clarifies that empathy is always an approximation. We can never know exactly how another is feeling, but it helps us to understand and connect with each other. She believes that this can often “make or break relationships.”

Empathy is not merely affective—it is also a cognitive process. “There is an internal dialogue,” she explains, “and questioning that occurs when learning about the experience of another and forming a response.”

We can use internal dialogue and questioning to reflect on someone else’s experience. An internal dialogue could look like this:

What must it be like for my friend who has lost their job? I was laid off once–what was that like for me? Would they be feeling the way I felt at that time? What helped me get through that experience? What was not helpful that other people said or did? How is my friend’s current experience different to my prior experience? What kind of support are they already receiving? What support may be missing? How can I provide support to them at this time?

“Empathy is also a choice,” says Stanley-Bhanji, and this choice should lead to action. Empathy reaches beyond imagination and calls on the person experiencing it to respond in some way, by offering support or inquiring about what is needed.

Can empathy be learned?

One of the core tenets of Humainologie, the not-for-profit led by Stanley-Bhanji, is that empathy is a learned skill. It is like throwing and catching a ball. “We all have some pre-existing ability to throw and catch,” she explains, “and most of us learn how to develop this skill as a child while growing up. However, if nobody played catch with you as a child, you may not fully develop this skill. The good news is that you can always pick it up later–it’s never too late to start throwing a ball.”

Thus, while there may be some instances where empathy appears to spring forth spontaneously, it still involves effort. For a neurotypical person, empathy is not a quality that you either have or do not have. It is a quality that is learned and practiced over time. “Being able to willingly step into those situations where empathy is required and do your best,” is key to learning empathy, describes Stanley-Bhanji. It involves “being vulnerable enough to ask for help or feedback and seeing the situations we encounter as an opportunity to improve.”

One of the most trying times to practice empathy is during conflict. “When we are angry, upset or triggered, it can be really hard to step into someone else’s shoes and make the attempt to imagine what they are experiencing or where they are coming from,” she says. As people spend unprecedented amounts of time confined at home with loved ones, the potential for conflict increases during the pandemic. Attending to one’s personal safety and wellbeing while spending more time at home with loved ones may, in some circumstances, “provide us with a chance to really hone in on our empathy skills.”

Pandemic offers pause

The COVID-19 pandemic offers opportunities to practice empathy. For those privileged enough to have their basic needs met, the pandemic may put a pause on some everyday stresses and preoccupations, and create space to fully consider others. In other words, many may have time to reflect on what matters and what others are going through. This type of reflection may lead many to centre values such as sharing, accessibility, and generosity to help others in their communities.

Empathy may manifest among individuals with a personal connection with somebody who has fallen ill or is experiencing economic challenges. These individuals may subsequently come to better understand the plight of others living with chronic health conditions or economic hardship, even beyond the pandemic. Moreover, those turning to mutual aid for the first time can learn from marginalized communities which have been doing this work out of necessity for generations and help to build their capacity.

Finally, being required to engage in spatial distancing can be a humbling experience, perhaps even spurring gratitude for available resources for those who have them. Challenges faced during spatial distancing can offer insight into the difficulties of others. Stanley-Bhanji believes this experience may cause some to make themselves available to others, opening the door to empathy.

Can empathy be “scaled-up”?

The verdict on learning and practicing empathy is an optimistic one. We now have an opportunity to nurture and grow that practice. But as many mutual aiders are already noting, empathy between neighbours and community members will not, on its own, be enough to create the kinds of societies we need that care for everyone properly. We need to consider how to “scale-up” empathy beyond the pandemic to create true, lasting solidarity. How can we move from being empathetic in our interpersonal interactions to being empathetic in the types of social programs we create, the policy decisions we support, and the political visions we inaugurate?

As Stanley-Bhanji explains, a major challenge that we face is the difficulty in practicing empathy towards those who are geographically distant, or for large groups of people, at once. She explains that our technologically connected world may, when employed intentionally, “offer a means to bridge some of these divides if it allows us to learn about the experiences and stories of others. However, it can also create distractions that serve as a barrier to being present and thereby fostering empathy.”

Stanley-Bhanji holds out hope for the scalability of empathy, as it is often contagious. “Empathy can produce ripple effects,” she says. “When someone shows you empathy, it makes it more likely that you will act empathetically towards others.” She believes that if these types of ripple effects continue, it could help lay the foundation for a cultural shift shaping how we behave as a society and the types of decisions we make to take care of others.

Scholars at the Care Collective at Verso Books refer to such a foundation as an “ethics of promiscuous care,” where circles of care are expanded to create the infrastructure needed to build caring societies. They emphasize the need to foster caring kinships, communities, states, economies, and, ultimately, care for the world. Much like how empathy at an interpersonal level involves cognition and action, fostering empathy in these other realms will require critical reflection and action.

We can begin by asking ourselves what values we are centering when practicing empathy, and how those same values can be applied in other contexts. For instance, empathy towards a neighbour experiencing distress might centre values such as sharing, accessibility, and generosity. From here, we can begin to consider actions that centre these same values in other realms, such as sharing wealth and resources, creating accessible workplaces and public spaces, and offering generous social protection to the most vulnerable.

Such a transformation is by no means guaranteed and will require intention and effort at each step along the way, but we have the chance today to set ourselves on a new course. Perhaps, by the time the next pandemic occurs, our world will be that much more empathetic and better able to respond with care.

Amanda Harvey-Sánchez is a Toronto-based organizer, researcher, and educator. She is an incoming Ph.D. student in Political Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Find her on Twitter @amanda_harveysa.


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