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Discovering Empathy

Creating a Human Connection in a Time of Adversity

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By Anum Mulla, Charter team member and empathy and compassion skill cultivation facilitator

August 21, 2020
First published by: International Baccalaureate
,, Graduate Voices Series

Survival of the fittest, is often mistaken as a phrase reflective of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. It was actually coined by sociologist Herbert Spencer, who implied a completely different meaning to the theory, which focused on the idea that those who were, ‘most fit’, in society would, ‘survive’. A deeper study into Darwin’s published works has led many scientists to conclude that the view he held on human nature exhibited his understanding of compassion, and that survival of the kindest may be a more cohesively accurate articulation of his work.

In his book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin explores the origin of what he calls sympathy (what we may today attribute to aspects of altruism, empathy and compassion) in light of the nature of human selection; “For those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring”.

What Darwin is referring to is our internal faculties of empathy and compassion that form the very basis of our sense of human connection, without which we would simply be unable to navigate any true understanding of ourselves or the world beyond us. Empathy can be divided into two broad categories; affective empathy is what qualifies as the center of our emotional capability and allows us to sense, feel and experience what someone else may be experiencing. Whereas, cognitive empathy is our ability to actually discern what someone else may be feeling by observing what they are exhibiting, whether or not we are able to put ourselves in their shoes. Acting on empathy driven-thought is the first step in the vast continuum of compassion, which by definition is found in aspiring to alleviate another’s suffering. These qualities are inherently wired into every aspect of our consciousness; they are what activate our humanity, and without them we risk defying the many layered laws of human connection.

Embracing a more empathetic and compassionate approach is far too often viewed as the weaker route. This position may arguably find its roots in a socially-conditioned view of such prospects equating to cowardice and a lack of strength―truly exhibiting the façade of the misinterpreted, “softer approach”. However, the advancement of our emotional intelligence is directly quantified by our ability to resonate with one another, to empathize and to participate in acts of compassion for ourselves and for those around us. In actuality, what it really takes to be compassionate is an unbelievable capacity of courage, and just that ability in itself is perhaps the truest testament to the immeasurable amount of emotional strength we as human beings, have the potential to possess.

As a pre-cursor to compassion, empathy is the foundation on which all of our altruistic behavior is built. When we cultivate these qualities as we would skills, we further our practice and often avoid experiencing empathic distress―an overwhelming sense of empathy which leads to an unbalanced state. To remain within the plane of empathic concern and avoid distress, we must self-cultivate emotional awareness and resilience, a broader exercise of which can enable us to experience empathy not only for our in-group but also for our out-group, eventually leading us to overcome our implicit and explicit biases. By relating to others through the lens of impartiality and common humanity, we open the door to empathic concern and compassion, allowing ourselves an opportunity to truly engage in different systems with an appreciation of interdependence.

Over the last few years, we have seen the gravitation towards this kind of approach in the education system with importance being given to adopting components of social emotional learning (SEL) programmes. The education community, as well as the corporate world, are both increasingly investing in the cultivation of emotional intelligence skills. On any avenue of success―no matter what that word means to you―there sits an intersection of empathy and compassion, those who are able to recognize and understand the inner workings of people are perhaps the true thinkers of society.

One out of the ten fundamental attributes of the IB learner profile is, caring―‘We show empathy, compassion and respect. We have a commitment to service, and we act to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the world around us’. As individuals embedded in the system of the IB, whether we have only just started our IB journey or are well past the extended essay and theory of knowledge (TOK) presentations, there is a profound permanence in the significance of these attributes that the IB aims to instill in one’s character. The constant manifestation of these values reflects itself in the design of the system and is perhaps the touchstone of how the IB prepares us for the world beyond it. The interdisciplinary components of the IB allow for an interrelation of the ethical and emotional component―which mirrors the principles of the way we navigate our moral compass in a vast network of human connections.

As we continue to make our way through this new version of a, ‘COVID-19 reality’, that is changing almost every aspect of our lives, a deeper realization of what is truly necessary is coming to light. Almost overnight, a renewed sense of the collective value of human connection has made its way to the surface. Countless examples of altruistic actions continue to pour in from different cultures all over the world, reverberating how a by-product of this pandemic is the invocation of a simple human presence for another in this frozen moment of fear.

In spite of the daunting negativity that this virus’s shadow has cast upon the world, there exists an active practice of humanity fueled by empathic concern, which is leading to many acts of compassion. It is often said that no truer version of the self is reflected in times of adversity―and if the current time upon us is to be understood as global adversity, then perhaps there is deep value in recognizing that our innate and unfiltered approach is one that is actually rooted in compassion, and when devoid of its presence, no change that is true can unfold.

The cultivation of these qualities may offer us a deeper understanding of not only ourselves but also the important roles we, as well as those around us, play in our professional, personal and spiritual lives. Whatever is at the end of the version of the yellow brick road that you’re making your way across―undoubtedly, the path forward will always intrinsically be paved with empathy and compassion.



anum 600 300x300Anum is a writer, editor and an empathy & compassion cultivation facilitator. With roots in India, Pakistan, the Middle East and Canada, she is passionate about the fluid interrelation of cultures and perspectives and is a strong advocate of social justice and reform. Her work is rooted in the belief of a metaphysical alignment of the core human values of empathy and compassion. Anum studied political science and history at the University of Toronto. She is a certified facilitator of the Compassionate Integrity Training Programme (Center for Compassion, Integrity and Secular Ethics) as well as the Social Emotional & Ethical Learning Programme (Emory University) and is an active member of the International Charter for Compassion.