I was sitting cross-legged in the dirt, weeding a vegetable garden in Nova Scotia. Across from me sat a Japanese woman who was visiting Canada, trading work for room and board (also known as WWOOFing). She looked up at me and asked what I was doing “here”.
She went on to explain that in her own culture, volunteering was not the norm, nor was donating to charities, or welcoming in strangers. She wanted to know why Canadians were so generous, so welcoming and empathetic.
I didn’t have an answer for her.
All I said was that giving back was encouraged and valued by Canadians. I was a volunteer in the Katimavik program at the time, in which I truly learned the value of community development. Unfortunately, mine was the last group to take part in this amazing six month youth engagement program, before the federal government cut the Katimavik program after 30 successful years.
The political retreat from generous domestic and international policy dramatically shows a decrease in collective empathy, but how does this reflect Canadian individuals? Is our government reflective of how our society has changed – do we as Canadians no longer practice empathy on a regular basis?
For most people, it is hard to empathize with someone or something if they cannot see themselves in that position. As university students, we have a tendency to fall into patterns of routine; our lives beat to the rhythm of our coffee machines and alarm clocks. It’s often hard to move beyond our academic life and put the theories we learn into practice.
I recently watched the RSA Animate short on “The Power of Outrospection” by Roman Krznaric, which focused on the power of empathy to find meaning in our individual life and as a collective force as well. He expanded on the idea that the 20th century was a period of introspection (looking within yourself to find meaning), and that the 21st century ought to be “a period of outrospection”, in which we can discover ourselves by stepping outside ourselves.
Isn’t that what most students are chasing? We’re looking for meaning and passion, something to inspire us to keep going and give us direction in life.
Can a shift from introspection to outrospection transform society? It’s worth trying. We cannot simply sit back from our comfy chairs in the library and accept injustice. Preaching theories on human rights does nothing if action is not taken to make actual change. We can use the pain that we feel from watching distant realities that globalization has allowed us to access, and create radical change. We need empathy to be a social norm again.
Desmond Tutu once said, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” It is important to remember that everyone is facing difficulties in their lives, and often these difficulties are invisible to the eye or are reinforced by invisible power structures. We need to show empathy for others, understand and relate to them on our human level – feel our similarities rather than see our differences.
We need to bring empthy back into the Canadian identity. How are we going to do that? We have more tools than ever before. Here are a few ways that we, as people, and specifically as students of the University of Ottawa, can help cultivate empathy in our own capacity:
…in a cause bigger than yourself. Commit to helping others, but choose a cause that really fires you up. That way, you’ll have the biggest impact. If rape culture on campus is something that you are not comfortable with, volunteer with the Women’s Resource Centre. On campus, the Centre for Community and Global Engagement helps facilitate volunteer placements, which you can then add to your transcript. There are so many opportunities available for us to gain perspective and get outside of the typical student rhythm.
Vote for a future you want. Exercising your right to raise your voice is incredibly important for many different reasons. Using your voice, and motivating others to use theirs is an example of what Roman Krznaric calls “empathy as a collective force”. It is a tool for change. We can mobilize by choosing leaders who show compassion for people in positions of social inequality. We need to demand empathy from our government, because they represent us. There is a federal election coming up – educate yourself.
If you already feel like you have enough, and yet the societal expectations that come with birthdays, holidays, special occasions have you feeling the pressure to either give or receive gifts, encourage friends to donate in your name.
The next time someone asks me why I practice empathy I still want to be able to say that it is a Canadian value. Canada is an incredibly diverse country, and it is only in an attempt to understand each other that we can really say that we are moving in the right direction.