Volunteering: A Great Way to Bond and Exercise your Empathy

Last Sunday, the Her Campus chapter at Emmanuel and another on-campus club, Saints Giving Back, teamed up to coordinate a co-sponsored visit to the Yawkey House. Saints Giving Back is a club that organizes visits to the long term housing units for the Boston Children's Hospital, mainly the Yawkey House and the Devin-Nicole House. A few times each week, members go and cook either dinner or dessert for the families staying at these houses. 

For our visit, we cooked taco pizza and Mexican rice. We divided the work for these two dishes amongst ourselves. While someone browed the meat for the pizza, another person would cook the dough, or mince the cilantro. It was fun for us to cook a meal as a group and see the kids, full of joy, toddling-in still on their high from Halloween, asking for candy. But for me, my favorite part was talking to the families. 

 

Image courtesy of Megan Canfield

Image courtesy of Megan Canfield  

Image courtesy of Megan Canfield

I have done several visits with Saints Giving Back. On one visit in particular, as we were cleaning and waiting for the desserts to finish baking, a young couple with their baby girl walked in. They had flown in earlier that week, their first time in Boston, and it was because their baby girl needed brain surgery. They sat down, telling us how grateful they and the other families were whenever members of Saints Giving Back came to provide meals. 

With all the stress these families are under, the last thing they should have to worry about on top of everything, is dinner. Which just goes to show how important volunteering can be. Whether you're providing meals for families at Boston Children's Hospital or Soup Kitchens, rebuilding homes and infrastructure in communities decimated by natural disasters, or any other numerous ways people can volunteer, we must care for others. Contemporary philosophers writing about care ethics, indigenous people's ethicists, and African ethics all agree on the importance of community. They cite that relationships and interactions between people are crucial to having good-will and morality. Being able to care for others and put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand where they are coming from is empathy. Psychologists like Jamil Zaki, an Associate Professor at Standford University studying empathy, and author of The War For Kindness, writes about how recent studies show that on average, empathy levels have decreased. On NPR's Hidden Brain podcast, Shankar Vedantam interviews Zaki in the episode You 2.0: The Empathy Gym. Here, Zaki speculates that this decrease in empathy could be due to increased urbanization, solitary living, with 90% of people in Manhattan living alone, and interactions between people increasingly becoming transactional. 

Now for all the optimists out there, have no fear humans aren't necessarily doomed to become as impersonal as the robots we see in pop culture! Zaki goes on to debunk the myth that empathy is simply something people are born with or without. Instead, he likens it to a muscle. Like any other muscle, when exercised it grows stronger. When left unattended and idol, it grows weak and can disappear. 

Now you might be asking how can we exercise our empathy? Luckily, the answer is in plenty of different ways. Two really easy ones being reading more fiction books and volunteering! Who knew exercising could be so easy?