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LETTER: The meanings of compassion, kindness and empathy

In 2020, we live together as members of a multifaith, multicultural society and 25 per cent of us are uncomfortable with any discussions that involve mention of religion or spirit.

I am advocating to include the new scientific research on the potential advantages and disadvantages of cultivating compassion, kindness, empathy and human bias as part of every course taught in our province.

I am content to be a member of a Roman Catholic parish and my personal spiritual “home” is Franciscan. That said, for me compassion and kindness are my “religion.”

Hence, I am much more at ease interacting with non-Catholics who cultivate compassion and kindness than Roman Catholics who do not.

I first became aware of my feelings around sectarianism as a preadolescent when some of my co-religionists began to plant bombs that injured, hurt, killed and maimed other people “in the name of our religion.”

Fifty years later, I have not changed my view that violence in imagination, speech, thought and action is to be avoided.

Rabbi Jonathan Sachs has written a powerful book entitled “Not in God’s name.” I agree and feel it will make a great addition to many libraries.

As a child, I could see too many people used “religion” to justify abusive and violent intentions, thoughts, word and deeds. Cultivating and promoting gentleness, peacebuilding and peace-making are the most challenging and important of human commitments and skills. I remain unconvinced that those who spew hatred and harshness and cultivate anger, fear and division are “courageous and strong.”

My argument for including the science of kindness, compassion and human bias on every curriculum is there is a lot of data from different fields of scholarship that these key skills are part of our human DNA and the neural pathways needed to be activated, so that we express them, can be switched on and off depending on cultural influences.

Compassion can be defined as the awareness of suffering combined with the desire to alleviate this suffering. Kindness includes friendliness and helpfulness, and a desire for life to go well for others. Compassion and kindness are cherished in all human wisdom traditions.

I enjoyed a lovely walk around Quidi Vidi Lake to raise funds for the Brain Injury Foundation. A fellow walker asked me as a physician if, in my opinion, diet is the most important health factor. Diet is important, and a complex topic. Spending time in nature, avoiding cigarettes, alcohol and certain drugs, staying mentally and physically active and enjoying arts, crafts and sports are all wonderful for our health and well being. Unequivocally, it is both the quantity and quality of our relationships which have the most significant effect.

The versions of Chief Seattle’s beautiful speech given in 1854 may have been recorded after his speech and may not be historically validated. The extant versions are a marvellous hymn to the creation, to life, kindness and compassion. These virtues are woven through the teachings of many Indigenous elders and shamans. Kindness and compassion are foundational to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, the Bahais and other faiths.

Loving, kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and empathy are foundational virtues of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

Empathy is a newer and more challenging construct. According to “A Short History of Empathy” published in the Atlantic, the word empathy has been used by English speakers for about 100 years. Brené Brown, an American author and thought leader said, “Empathy is communicating that incredibly healing message ... You are not alone.” Loneliness is now at such epidemic levels that 19th U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy published a book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection In Sometimes Lonely World.”

I enjoyed a lovely walk around Quidi Vidi Lake to raise funds for the Brain Injury Foundation. A fellow walker asked me as a physician if, in my opinion, diet is the most important health factor. Diet is important, and a complex topic. Spending time in nature, avoiding cigarettes, alcohol and certain drugs, staying mentally and physically active and enjoying arts, crafts and sports are all wonderful for our health and well being. Unequivocally, it is both the quantity and quality of our relationships which have the most significant effect.

This is not a criticism for the lockdown and social distancing programs needed to flatten the curve of COVID-19. Our minister of Health and his advisors need time to catch up on their reading. The safest and most cost-effective health care delivery models are rooted in the patient and care provider relationship.

Dr. Frances Scully,
St. John's

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