Do we suffer from compassion fatigue?

The British photojournalist Don McCullin has just turned seventy-five. During a career that has now spanned half a century, perhaps his most unforgettable photograph is of an emaciated albino boy in the Biafran War in Nigeria, taken in 1969. He is leaning over on skeletal legs with an abnormally large head, clutching an empty tin of corned beef. I have never seen an image like it and, at the time, neither had most of the Western world. Here is the photo:

Don McCullin's 1969 photo of a starving war orphan in Biafra.

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The view from the diving-bell

‘When I came to that late-January morning the hospital opthalmologist was leaning over me and sewing my right eyelid shut with a needle and thread, just as if he were darning a sock. Irrational terror swept over me.’ These words appear in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s remarkable autobiography, The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (1997). In 1995 Bauby was at the height of his career as editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine, when he was suddenly struck by a massive stroke. Although his mental faculties were unimpaired, he was left completely paralysed and speechless, a rare condition known as Locked-In Syndrome. The only part of his body he could move was his left eyelid, which he used to ‘dictate’ the book, having developed a system of repeated blinks to represent each letter of the alphabet.

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Five ways to expand your empathy

It is usual, at this time of year, to make a series of earnest New Year’s Resolutions which – by tradition – you resolutely fail to keep. Why not try promising yourself some New Year’s Explorations instead and widen your personal horizons.

Expanding your empathy might offer just what you are looking for. Empathising is an avant-garde form of travel in which you step into the shoes of another person and see the world from their perspective.  It is the ultimate adventure holiday – far more challenging than a bungee jump off Victoria Falls or trekking solo across the Gobi desert.

Here are my five top tips for transforming yourself into an empathetic adventurer over the coming months. Continue reading

Why we need a Climate Futures Museum

When I think about what is likely to result from the global climate change talks taking place in Copenhagen this month, I feel nothing but despair. Why? Because whatever kind of deal is struck is highly unlikely to keep global warming below two degrees. The majority of people in rich countries simply don’t care enough about the issue to pressure their governments into extraordinary action. I believe one of the major reasons for this is the lack of empathy for those who will – or who currently – suffer from the impacts of climate change.

The individuals behind the climate change headlines. Flooding in India, 2009.
The individuals behind the climate change headlines. Flooding in India, 2009.

We should view the problem of tackling climate change not as an environmental issue, or one concerning technology or social justice or markets, but primarily as a problem of empathy. We must learn to see the individuals behind the newspaper headlines about global warming, and imagine ourselves into the uniqueness of their lives, developing an empathetic understanding of their most important experiences, beliefs, fears and hopes. Sound far-fetched, wishy-washy or a little too sandals-and-carrot-juice for your liking? Let me explain myself.
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Using babies to teach empathy in schools

I’m delighted to see that one of the great pioneers of empathy education, Mary Gordon, has just had her book Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child By Child, published in the UK. It’s about time. The programme she founded in Canada in 1995, also called Roots of Empathy (ROE), has revolutionised how empathy skills are taught in the classroom. ROE has now reached over a quarter of a million Canadian school kids – including aboriginal children – and has spread to New Zealand, the United States and the Isle of Man. The originality of ROE is this: the teacher is a baby.
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