In Australia, where life often revolves around the 50,000 kilometres of coastline and 10,000 beaches, a dying patient is granted one last chance to see the shores and the sand thanks to a kind ambulance crew. The paramedics took a “small diversion” on their way to the palliative care unit at the request of the patient, according to the Queensland Ambulance Service.
“She just wished she could be at the beach again,” the QAS wrote on social media. The ambulance service saluted the paramedics for going “above and beyond” in fulfilling her request. “Tears were shed and the patient felt very happy,” the social media post said. “Sometimes it’s not the drugs/training/skills – sometimes all you need is empathy to make a difference!”
The ability to connect empathically with others—to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with compassion—is critical to our lives, helping us to get along, work more effectively, and thrive as a society.
For inspiring examples of empathy, care and compassion, we only have to look to the medical field, especially during this time of COVID-19, distancing and isolation. Yet many medical practitioners—doctors, nurses and paramedics alike—think turning off their feelings and creating emotional distance helps them remain objective and provide better care. Research shows that doing so makes patients distrustful, disgruntled, and less cooperative. And it makes for lonelier, less effective, and more burned-out medical professionals.
Psychiatrist and researcher Helen Riess suggests that medical professionals, every human for that matter, should practice empathy. Not only does being empathetic improve health care, it improves human interactions in general. Riess writes, “All parties are equally enriched when we perceive and respond to each other with empathy and compassion.”
Many confuse empathy (feeling with someone) with sympathy (feeling sorry for someone). Riess sums it up this way, “Empathy involves an ability to perceive others’ feelings (and to recognize our own emotions), to imagine why someone might be feeling a certain way, and to have concern for their welfare."
"Once empathy is activated,” Riess continues, "compassionate action is the most logical response."
Another psychiatrist and an empath, Judith Orloff says "Empathy is when we reach our hearts out to others and put ourselves in their shoes. It also means that we can be happy for others during their times of joy.”
In a Psychology Today article entitled ‘The Healing Power of Empathy' Orloff writes, "During these stressful times, personally and globally, it’s easy to get overwhelmed."
"Empathy is the quality that will get us through.
It enables us to respect one another,
even if we disagree.”
Orloff continues, "Empathy doesn’t make you a sentimental softy without discernment. It allows you to keep your heart open to foster tolerance and understanding. Being empathic might not always be effective in getting through to people, but I think it’s the best chance we have for peace in our own lives and on the planet."
The Dalai Lama says, “Empathy is the most precious human quality.” Public television’s Mr. Rogers said, “What is essential is invisible to the eye … The best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts.”
Few understand and have demonstrated empathy more than Fred Rogers, the late host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Mr. Rogers taught kids critical emotional and social skills that are still relevant to adults today. He used puppets, songs and an endless supply of empathy to help kids through tough issues, including death and divorce.
From the first episode in 1968 to its finale more than 30 years later, the show proved revolutionary because Rogers showed a fearlessness in tackling topics that many people would have considered taboo, especially for children. And as history would show, Mr. Rogers was often ahead of his time.
Last year, around the release of the Tom Hank’s movie 'A Beautiful Day In The Neighorhood’, NBC’s Ethan Sacks wrote, "Rogers dipped his toe into the civil rights movement in a 1969 episode that featured him cooling off his feet in a wading pool with the black actor François Clemmons (Officer Clemmons), who played a police officer. That was a breach of a major color barrier at a time when many swimming pools across the country were still segregated along racial lines.”
Later, in his memoir 'Officer Clemmons', François Clemmons shared the story of that moment on the show. "He [Mr. Rogers] said, 'Come, come sit with me.' And he said, 'You can share my towel.' My God, those were powerful words. It was transformative to sit there with him, thinking to myself, 'Oh, something wonderful is happening here. This is not what it looks like. It's much bigger."
“And many people,” continued Clemmons, “as I've traveled around the country, share with me what that particular moment meant to them, because he was telling them, 'You cannot be a racist.’ And one guy or more than that, but one particularly I'll never forget, said to me, ‘When that program came on, we were actually discussing the fact that black people were inferior. And Mister Rogers cut right through it,’ he said. And he said essentially that scene ended that argument.”
François Clemmons overcame a difficult childhood and discrimination to become a musician, noted choir director and recurring character on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. His role as Officer Clemmons on the show served as a positive image of a black American at a time when racial tensions in the U.S. were high.
In his 2019 article for NBC News, Ethan Sacks reported that "Fred's wife Joanne believes that the message in Mr. Rogers’ Neighorhood "is still potent for a generation of young children who are learning mass shooting safety drills in kindergarten, and hopes that parents who grew up with the show are introducing it to their own kids through reruns."
"Teaching children at young ages about values of kindness, and empathy and caring for others, is something as a culture would make us flourish if we spent more time doing that," she added.
"It feels like everyone is saying to me, 'Oh my gosh, it feels like we need Mr. Rogers more than ever.’" Joanne Rogers said. "We’re living in scary times and I think we all have that feeling that we’re losing touch with each other and we’re losing touch with the ability to listen to each other and empathize with each other.”
Mrs. Rogers was not wrong.
Neither was Mr. Rogers when he said, "The media shows the tiniest percentage of what people do. There are millions and millions of people doing wonderful things all over the world, and they're generally not the ones being touted in the news.”
It’s never too late to learn empathy. There are only four steps involved; it can be quite simple and can be quite difficult.
Listen. When someone opens up to you and shares what's going on in her life, the absolute best thing you can do is listen.
Connect with their feelings. They say you don't truly know how someone feels until you've walked a mile in their shoes.
Acknowledge their pain.
Show them love.
“Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like,” shared Mr. Rogers, "if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.”
Paramedics Grant a Woman's Final Wish to See the Beach by Laignee Barron, TIME
The Healing Power of Empathy, by Judith Orloff, M.D., Psychology Today
The Power of Empathy, by Elena Aguilar, Edutopia
Why the World Needs an Empathy Revolution by Jill Suttie, Greater Good Magazine
Seven Lessons from Mister Rogers, by Shea Tuttle, Greater Good Magazine
Mr. Rogers' Message of Kindness and Empathy, by Ethan Sacks, NBC News
Mr. Rogers Had a Way with Taboo Topics by Seamus Kirst, History.com
François Clemmons Reflects On Life Beyond 'Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, by Jeremy Hobson and Samantha Raphelson, WBUR