“The Age of Empathy” by Mark Goulston

AUTHOR: Frans de Waal

AUTHOR: Frans de Waal

Sometimes, it is difficult to see the good in our world, particularly when we are bombarded by negative news, stories of atrocities, shameful acts from corrupt politicians, people who are egotistical and go out of their to improve their position, regardless of the negative impact their actions have on others. Being knee deep in the world of international relations, we are constantly surrounded by such types of news and actions, and it can be difficult to keep treading water above such heavy activities.

At the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy, our goal is to make you think outside of the box and consider things from a different angle to help you strengthen your critical thinking skills and mould yourself to be the best version of yourself to better serve the needs of society. For this reason, we picked up a book written by a primatologist, who has dedicated decades of research to understanding the differences and similarities of humans and related animal cousins, and our designs of communities, social structures and general responsibility to those communities. When we consider what empathy is, we also need to look why how sharing empathy is important with our bond with others. But this book goes primal and looks deeper into our more animal nature before the formal constructions of society and global governance.

That is why we recommend the book “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society” by Frans de Waal to support Chapter 3 “Enhancing Emotional Intelligence” of the Diplomatic Planner. While there are plenty of personal anecdotes shared by the author, he does so with humour and science to back his stories. The book is really about how several emotions and traits thought to be uniquely human like sympathy, empathy, egalitarianism and a sense of fairness can actually be characterised and pulled from the animal kingdom. While our closest relatives are with chimpanzees, the author pulls plenty of examples of other animals including dogs, elephants and crows.

From general pop culture, we are constantly fed the theme of greed and self-improvement forsaking the thoughts of others. Early on in the book, the author references Michael Douglas’s character from Wall Street, where he says: “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” Perhaps that is why many who serve in international relations have taken the path to serve humanity rather than opt for a career in business where the bottom line is the driving mission.

Nevertheless, even the darwinism theory of the “survival of the fittest” still applies to international relations where there is competitive strive to be best against a swarm of other high-level practitioners who want the same level of success as you. However, history has shown us that war and violence haven’t always been part of the human experience. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: “The story of the human race is War. Except for brief and precarious interludes, there has never been peace in the world; and before history began, murderous strife was universal and unending.” Considering that he was leader during times of war, do you agree with his point of view? Contrary to Churchill’s opinion, human history comprises of long stretches of peace and harmony with brief periods of violence. Likewise, organised combat of modern warfare is not a result of any natural proclivity for aggression and violence but actions led by others. These are instinctual coordination where people obey and follow for the sake of survival.

It is natural for human to bond with one another as it leads to longer and happier lives. Think of why solitary confinement is chosen as an activity of punishment and considered as one of the worst punishment short of death. Humans need interaction for survival and happiness as we are highly dependent on other people, both physically and emotionally. Without that, we become depressed. When we deny our natural instincts to be nurturing the author shows how it can have tragic consequences, particularly on our actions and behaviour.

For instance, how much control do you think you have over your own decisions, desires and impulses? While we try our best to choose for ourselves, we often look upon others and choose based on how others have chosen. Interestingly, the author speaks of a psychologist who did a study with orphaned children to see whether a blank state of mind will help them thrive. As part of the experiment, the psychologist kept the children in their cribs separated by white sheets with no other visual stimulation. Instead of thriving, the children were left in zombie-like state with blank faces and wide-open, unmoving eyes that signified their lack of stimulation. This basically emphasised how we require stimulation, nurturing and connections with others, instead of assuming that we thrive with a blank canvas mind because we work off one another and therefore become inspired by the actions of others.

This basically makes it clear that we need nurturing, human connection and empathy from the moment we are born in order to survive and it is a biological imperative. It might not seem it sometimes but empathy comes naturally to use as it plays an important part in ensuring our survival. Think of the last time you helped someone, even if it is something as simple as passing an object over to someone. Our sense of empathy and cooperation comes naturally to us. Simply put, we wouldn’t be here if our natural deposition was to always be insensitive and competitive. No one is emotionally immune to the plight of another’s situation.

“The Age of Empathy” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development toolkit for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register