The War for Kindness

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Book Review

Empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.

Roger Ebert

This book, The War for Kindness by Jamil Zaki, is about that quality. It is also about another similarly elusive quality, kindness. And it is about the emerging science that roots them. It’s about how to grow these emotional “muscles,” through community building, art, and unlikely friendships. 

The book tells stories — about lifelong bigots letting go of their hatred, about Tutsis and Hutus coming together in forgiveness after years of attempted genocide, and about police officers who learn how to interact peacefully with civilians. You’ll read about neonatal ICU doctors and nurses helping families through difficult moments without succumbing to their own pain, and also about ex-convicts having deep discussions with the judges who sentenced them.

Reading this book will help you grow your empathy, making it stronger and more muscular — and it will improve your kindness along the way.

Broadly speaking, the research shows that empathy is genetically determined. However, this is only the point at which a person starts their journey with empathy. The book’s author, Jamil Zaki, shows us that empathy is also a trait that can be cultured, nurtured, and grown.

Zaki’s research shows us that people can easily become more empathetic, so long as they treat it as a skill and  practice intentionally. Moreover, he finds that when people realize empathy is malleable (and not a fixed quality, like we have been led to believe), they invest more effort and time into helping others. This is a critically important finding, given the times we live in, when polarization is rampant and overall understanding seems to be declining.

In fact, Zaki writes compellingly. It’s difficult to not respond to his prose. His chapters read like long thematically-related stories, giving the reader a broad overview of the interesting and current research on the subject. This approach is appealing, since Zaki himself notes that one effective tool to build empathy is the telling of stories. 

And different research has also shown us that humans are hardwired for stories.

Zaki’s own journey into empathy started young. The book opens telling the story of his parents’ bitter divorce. During this difficult time, he learned how to maintain relationships with empathy. Empathy enabled him to maintain his individual connection to each parent, even as they disconnected from each other more and more.

No stranger to vulnerability, the author continues with a further personal example. He tells us the story of his daughter, who endured a stroke during a harrowing birth. He then talks of the compassionate healthcare workers who cared for her in the first months of her life, seamlessly transitioning into how people in caring professions can be negatively influenced by the suffering of others.

This is a critical and timely discussion, given recent thinking which suggests there are wider negative implications to empathy.

Sadly, one issue with the word “empathy” is that it can mean many different things to different people.  Yes, there are negative implications to emotion sharing or personal distress, which are two potential definitions.  However, empathy is better thought of as being more like compassion.  When viewed in this way, studies show empathy can act as a buffer against burnout.

The book does not provide clear action points for growing empathy.  However, the many stories in the book show the reader many different ways to increase it.  Sadly there is no “quick fix” for empathy.  Building it takes both effort and time. That said, it does get easier with practice.

Zaki’s well-researched book includes comprehensive footnotes, a thorough overview on the differing definitions of empathy, and an additional appendix which tries to present the evidence talked about in the book in an accessible fashion. Those with a scientific bent will appreciate these sections, yet they may not be satisfying.  Most lay readers may ignore them, yet they are still a worthy inclusion to the 272-page volume.

This book may well inspire the reader to learn more about empathy, compassion, and kindness. Zaki hopes to do more than share “empathy science” with the common man, however. He hopes to see people practicing more kindness in their everyday lives.