Book Review: The Power of Kindness

The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy Is Essential in Everyday Life

Author:Brian Goldman, MD

Publisher:HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

309 pages, including Acknowledgements and Index, hardcover

ISBN: 978-1-44345-106-2

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Dr. Brian Goldman has been an emergency room physician for about 35 years, and since 2007, the host of “White Coat, Black Art,” a multi-award-winning show on CBC Radio.

Dr. Goldman begins this volume by asking: “Am I a kind soul?” (p.1) He admits that sometimes he was more worried about mistakes he may or may not have made in his medical practice than whether he was a kind doctor to his patients. He was also preoccupied with being a responsible husband and parent, rather than focussing on kindness per se.

He makes the distinction between sympathy and empathy; describes three types of empathy—emotional, cognitive, and compassion; looks at the origin of the word kindness; and offers several examples of unkindness and kindness. “Linguists say “kindness” comes from the Old English word cynd,which refers to kinship, as in friends who are “two of a kind.” (p. 9)

Dr. Goldman was impressed by the kindness shown him on Good Friday in 2016. He planned on travelling to Brazil for some interviews for this book when he realized that he needed a tourist visa. A Toronto consular office staff person; in an act of kindness agreed to process his application in order that he could catch his flight to Brazil.

Another word he describes in relation to kindness is synchrony,meaning: “a simultaneous action or occurrence.” (p. 10) An example he cites is newborn babies imitating the facial expressions of their parents.

The author notes that when someone experiences kindness from another person; they see the kind person as being similar to themselves; and they, in turn, are more likely to show kindness to others as well. From a faith perspective, I think this is one of the benefits of “the Golden Rule,” in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

In his quest to learn more about kindness and empathy, Dr. Goldman decided to get a fMRI, and become a participant in research measuring empathic resonance among health care professionals. Those who have worked as health care professionals for a long time tend to underestimate the pain of others. Researchers are not sure why this is the case.

Neuroscientists believe that humans are hard-wired to be empathic and kind.” (p. 21) However, it’s difficult to empathize when parts of the brain are not functioning properly.

Tactile empathy happens when the same part of the brain is activated when someone touches another person; and when someone else observes another being touched.

Health care professionals may have an empathy off-switch to distance themselves from their patients’ pain in order to do what is necessary medically—e.g. surgery on a patient.

According to some experts, psychopaths and narcissists are on the rise; and they can utilize cognitive empathy to manipulate people in harmful, even evil ways.

In his chapter, “The Donut Shop,” Dr. Goldman describes the empathy of Mark Wafer, who owns a few Tim Hortons restaurants and is deaf. Because he experienced bullying and discrimination as a deaf person; Mark is more empathic toward people with disabilities like Clint Sparling. Clint has Down syndrome, and Mark hired him; and over the years he has become one of Mark’s most valuable employees. Clint has done exceptionally well; and he lives a full, meaningful life. Now 20 percent of Mark’s employees are disabled.

Dr. Goldman tells of a UN-funded virtual reality film Clouds over Sidra. Sidra is a 12-year-old Syrian refugee girl, living in a refugee camp in Jordan. The film shows how Sidra lives in the camp and Dr. Goldman discovered—as did others who have watched the film—that it succeeds in making viewers feel empathy. It has also served as a successful fundraiser for refugees resettling in countries like Canada.

There are some who believe that virtual reality (VR) creates empathy concerning social justice issues—others are more sceptical. VR may also help overcome phobias of various kinds. In Canada, a VR project called Embodying Empathy is designed to help those who attended residential schools; as well as for non-Indigenous people to experience what residential schools were like; and to help the non-Indigenous people to be more empathic toward Indigenous people suffering from their experiences in residential schools.

During his trip to Brazil, Dr. Goldman accompanied a woman in São Paulo who offers empathy and friendship to the homeless. She even created a Facebook page to showcase the poems of a street poet named Raimundo. She also played a role in uniting Raimundo with his family again after many years.

In a trip to Japan, Dr. Goldman visited roboticists and explored how robots provide health care for seniors. The cost of such robots is likely prohibitive for many—20 million yen or $236,000 Canadian. Moreover, robots have not been perfected to the extent that they may not work with seniors who have various kinds of injuries and disabilities.

Dr. Goldman interviews Mary Gordon, the founder of ROE—the Roots of Empathy program in schools, designed to prevent aggression and bullying. Mary Gordon learned empathy at an early age from her parents. This program has made a difference for many students.

It is interesting that Dr. Goldman suggests being kind and expressing empathy to someone you can’t stand. From a faith perspective, that is what Jesus taught and practiced in loving one’s enemies and blessing those who curse you.

Dr. Goldman visits a senior’s care home for people with dementia; and observes how health care staff show empathy for residents with dementia by employing the technique of Validation-mirroring the reality of the residents; rather than trying to correct them and bring them into the staff’s reality. Naomi Feil is credited with introducing Validation for people with dementia. Dr. Goldman describes her as “the soul whisperer” because of her gifts and expertise in employing Validation with people who have dementia. When Feil employs the method of Validation, she is able to share an incredible kindness and empathy with those having dementia.

Feil believes Validation is the best method in caring for those with dementia; rather than Redirection, Diversion or telling a therapeutic lie. Goldman shares several anecdotes as told by health care staff how employing the method of Validation made a huge difference for dementia residents. For example, residents were able to resolve anger and other issues, and be at peace. They too were able to express empathy with other dementia residents.

In his final chapter, “Epiphany,” Dr. Goldman reviews the results of his fMRI with Philip Jackson. After asking Jackson several questions about his empathy tests; Jackson tells Dr. Goldman the clearestway to learn about his empathy is to interact more with people he knows best. So, Dr. Goldman speaks with his partner Tamara Broder, whom he believes is a very empathic person. She tells Dr. Goldman: “I think you’re one of the most empathic people I know.” (p. 292) She says he has the ability to be in someone else’s shoes and imagine what they are feeling.

Some of us are born extraordinarily kind. But most get there only after experiencing pain and then learning from it.” (p. 295)

Dr. Goldman, after all of his research and interviews, comes to realize that to be a person of empathy, one has to be empathic toward oneself; to be a kind person, one has to be kind to oneself. In other words, as Jews and Christians believe, teach and endeavour to live: Love your neighbour as you love yourself.

One critique I have of this otherwise most accessible and informative volume is Dr. Goldman’s failure to mention the divine in relation to empathy and kindness. As a person of faith, I believe that both empathy and kindness originate from God. Indeed, kindness is listed by the apostle Paul as one of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22.

About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: dimlamp.wordpress.com gwh photos: gwhphotos.wordpress.com

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