Anita Nowak shows us how ‘Purposeful Empathy’ can change the world

“Purposeful Empathy” author Anita Nowak in the midst of her global travels. (Photo provided by the author.)

‘Empathy is the innate trait that unites us in our common humanity’

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

I decided to interview author Anita Nowak the moment I opened her new book, Purposeful Empathy, and found the Foreword by one of my own global heroes: Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus. He is the Bangladeshi-Bengali banker who pioneered the “microfinance” idea for helping neighbors in impoverished communities with small loans. One of the most memorable hours in my life was sitting in a small circle of American journalists in a home in Asia, listening to Yunus talk about his life.

“What lessons do you want us to share with our readers?” we asked him at the close of our hour together.

He said simply, “We must care what happens to each other—then we must learn to trust each other,” and then he was silent. What a clear answer! Two steps: Caring. Trusting. So simple, yet such a world-changing idea! And those same two principles are the reason Yunus agreed to add his considerable authority to the first page of Anita’s new book. In that Foreword, he writes:

Purposeful Empathy is a timely and inspiring read that carries an important message—one that aligns with my vision for a better world, animated by mutual care, respect, cooperation and solidarity.

So, because of Yunus’s words, I read Anita’s book. And, after just a few chapters, I was impressed with the considerable resources she has organized for readers—resources to help us learn to care and learn to trust. As Yunus writes in his Foreword, this is a book so practically designed that it can “swing you from cynicism to hope, from selfishness to selflessness, and from apathy to action.”

I also enlisted my reading-and-interviewing partner for this series of ReadTheSpirit stories about books on resiliency and overcoming trauma in healing communities. That partner is my son-in-law, the Rev. Joel Walther, the pastor of a mid-sized United Methodist congregation in Michigan. Together, we are working this spring on a series of interviews and columns about some very helpful new books appearing this year, including last week’s story about Trauma-Informed Evangelism.

Question: What is empathy?
Answer: It’s not as simple as you may think!

As Joel and I read Anita’s book, then compared our notes, our collective first question for her emerged: So, what is empathy?

You may already be responding to our question: Oh, that’s so simple!

Well, it isn’t. And I proved that point by using the much-heralded new AI image-generator Dall-e to request illustrations of “empathy.” Turns out: The word “empathy” stops Dall-e cold in its tracks. The vast Artificial Intelligence behind Dall-e apparently can’t discern the word’s meaning! Based on my request, Dall-e gave me illustrations of everything from an outright angry old man to a young woman wearing a blindfold. As Anita points out in her book, the word “empathy” is only about a century old in common English usage and it is often misunderstood. Clearly, based on my Dall-e AI experiments, that confusion is widespread.

I said to Anita in our three-way Zoom conversation, “Joel and I agree that the first big question in our conversation about your work is pretty basic: What’s empathy?”

The best answer to that question is: Read Anita’s book. As her book opens, she explains that, years ago, she wasn’t thinking specifically about “empathy” as she worked in social-change organizations in various parts of the world and collected interviews with social entrepreneurs. She was researching a doctoral thesis about the motivations behind “the next generation of change makers.” It was only after her thesis advisor pushed her to dig deeper into her growing body of research that she realized the core motivation was: empathy. That insight forever shifted the focus of her life’s work. In 2023, after the main title of her new book, Purposeful Empathy, is the subtitle: Tapping Our Hidden Superpower for Personal, Organizational and Social Change. We can guarantee that you will enjoy all 253 pages.

But, from our Zoom author interview, here’s a much shorter answer to our basic question. In Anita’s words, transcribed from our interview, she said:

“When I began my research, I was interviewing people who are creating positive change in the world to find out what has shaped their lives and their work—so I did not come to this research thinking that empathy was the answer. The answer ’empathy’ came out of the research. I realized that, across all of the stories I was collecting in my research, there were two things in common: One was that service was modeled in their home. They had a family that valued benevolent service to something greater than yourself. That was a value that was embedded in their childhood. And the second thing they all had in common was that they couldn’t turn a blind eye to whatever was going on around them that left people marginalized or disenfranchised or was hurting people in some way. And so I called this ‘empathic action.’

“Then, after discovering that they were all animated and inspired by empathy, I did a deep dive into ’empathy’ to understand it better. And what I came across in the literature was these words like ‘pity’ and ‘sympathy’ and ‘compassion’ that often were treated as synonyms with empathy. Then, I studied the etymology of these words and the evolution of the word ‘empathy’ in the English language and discovered that these words really form an emotional continuum. So, on one side of the continuum you’ve got ‘pity’ and then the continuum moves through ‘sympathy’ and ‘compassion’ to ‘empathy.’ But when you’re at the ‘pity’ end of the continuum, there is a power asymmetry in the relationship. When you pity someone, you look down on them. But as you move across this continuum all the way to ‘empathy,’ there’s a recognition of our shared humanity.

“So that’s why I refer to ’empathy’ as the innate trait that unites us in our common humanity. Empathy puts us on a level playing field. It takes away the ‘separateness’ and the ‘otherness.’ … Because we have these shared emotions like love and fear and shame and joy, that’s what makes empathy possible. And that’s why in the subtitle of this book, I call it our ‘superpower,’ because it connects us in our oneness in humanity.”

Adding ‘Parenting’ or ‘Family’ to Anita’s subtitle

Anita’s answer, above, is a wonderful summary of what readers will discover as they move through chapters that she packs with supplemental questions and activities for individual readers and small groups.

But it was Joel who pointed out one important value of this book that is not listed in Anita’s subtitle: Parenting and family life in general. Of course, the power of empathy to grow within families is right there in her answer, above—as well as in the pages of her book.

Because the words “Parenting” or “Family” didn’t make the cut for her subtitle, though, we asked her to talk about that aspect of her work and her daily life.

“One of the most important lessons I learned from interviewing social entrepreneurs is that they grew up in families that modeled service behavior. That lesson has stayed with me. I became a parent late in life. I had my daughter when I was 42 and she’s now turning 7.

“So, recently, my daughter and I were buying Harry Potter décor for her birthday and, as we ran our errands, we happened to pass an unhoused man on the street. My daughter asked, ‘Do we have time to buy a sandwich for this man?’

“I said, ‘Yes, we definitely have time to buy a sandwich for him.’

“But, when we went and bought the sandwich, then went back out to where we had seen him, he was no longer there. So, she insisted that we walk a couple of blocks to try to find him. We couldn’t find him and eventually she ate the sandwich.

“Even though we didn’t reach him with the sandwich, I was so touched by my daughter having that reflex. And I need to say: I’m not claiming to have a perfect angel living in my midst. Around that same time, I got a call from another parent saying, ‘Your daughter was mean to my daughter today.’ So, I’m not claiming our lives are perfect!

“I tell this story about my daughter and the sandwich to say that I think we need to focus as parents on raising kind children. We need to talk to our children about social issues from a young age. In our world today, there are children who are living through war and other life-and-death hardships. I disagree with the idea that it’s somehow inappropriate to expose our children to those hard issues in our world. I’m not going to traumatize my daughter by talking about some of the ills in our world. I’ve taken my daughter to protest marches in her stroller. She’s growing up aware of some of these concerns.

“And even more than what we talk about, we need to pay attention to how we behave. One day, my daughter saw me as I was driving and pulled a big U-turn in the street and she was concerned: ‘Mom, you’ve just done something illegal!’ She was judging me. The point I’m making is that our children are watching us all the time and we need to model for them behavior that we hope they will follow, just like the social entrepreneurs I mentioned at the start of this answer. When they were children, they saw their parents doing things that they are doing today. I’m not claiming to be a perfect mother, but I do think about what we are modeling every day for our children because I know that makes a big difference.”

‘How do we intentionally work toward empathy?’

The reason Joel is partnering with me in this particular series of interviews is that these new books really are aimed at community leaders, including pastors trying to lead resilient, compassionate, loving congregations. He’s a great source of grassroots insight and, in this interview, he asked Anita to particularly address: “As a pastor reading your book, I understand that you’re really talking about empathy as connection. And I keep wondering: How do we convince people to encourage connection rather than division. We’re obviously in a place now where we need something new?”

Anita answered:

“That’s a great question, Joel. And the answer really is: practice.

“As I learned about the neuroscience of empathy, it shows that we can become more empathic with practice just like doing bicep curls at the gym to strengthen our arms. In the book, I mention Jamil Zaki at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory. He’s done research that shows just the belief that we can become more empathic actually has real implications on our behavior. There’s so much evidence now that empathy can be purposeful. We can choose to be more empathetic. So, as I learned about all of this, I did all kinds of experiments myself that you can read about in the book.

“I often tell people about this experience I had at a FedEx store: It was a holiday season some years ago, before we had cell phones—so there was nothing to distract us as we waited. I was standing in this FedEx store with other people all becoming bored and annoyed. Then, I finally got to the counter and the woman at the counter was rude—not just a little bit rude, but nasty. I felt this trigger, like: How dare you talk to me like that?! But, instead of saying that and making the situation worse, I took a second to say: ‘Are you OK?’

“Then, she took a second to discern if I was being sarcastic and mean, kind of passive-aggressive. She realized I was serious and she just burst into tears. She said, ‘I’ve been doing double shifts for two weeks straight, my son’s at home with a fever and now I think I’m getting sick. We haven’t had a lunch break here. I’m just exhausted.’

“And I get goose bumps when I tell this story because I actually reached across the counter and we held hands. Now we’re both crying. Here we are—perfect strangers—in this empathic embrace. I could remember being on her side of the equation many times in my life. All of us have been! And haven’t we all, also, been on my side of that counter that day?

“But we usually don’t take a step that leads to a moment of empathy like that.

“Now think about how many times these things happen to us over and over again, these days, until we’re all frazzled. We’re triggered by the Twitter-sphere, by people driving poorly, by other people who are upset. We’re stressed out—and here’s the problem: We cannot live in a state of stress and a state of empathy at the same time. Our brain does not do that. So, it’s a matter of making a decision to lean into empathy. And, when you do, it’s amazing what opens up!

“So, my answer is: Practice. Practice. Practice.”

Question: Why try empathy?
Answer: It feels so good!

Here’s the best news about Anita’s book: After her advice, above, about “practice, practice, practice,” this book could sound like bitter medicine. You know you should read it, even if you don’t feel like it.

In fact, reading her book is the opposite of that: It feels good.

And it feels good to read these pages, and think about the questions she asks—and try the activities she suggests—because it feels good.

Empathy feels good!

Finally, Joel and I asked Anita to talk about his wonderfully refreshing “pay off” for doing something so good in the world. She began by explaining the two kinds of empathy she describes in the early pages of her book. Here’s what she said:

“We have access to both kinds of empathy: affective and cognitive empathy.

“The affective empathy, the emotional empathy, is like an emotional contagion. Affective empathy happens to us. When you see a child playing in the park and you hear that child giggling and laughing, you can’t walk by without that lifting your spirit. You’re feeling a resonance with that child just like when you see somebody crying at the airport, you wonder what those tears are about because you feel it.

“Cognitive empathy is different because it requires our choice. We’re actively involved in perspective taking: I wonder what that experience is like for somebody else? Sometimes it involves projection: I wonder how I would feel in this circumstance? It’s intentional empathy and that’s why it’s purposeful empathy.

“So purposeful empathy, cognitive empathy, is the thing that gives us the most power. We can choose to turn it on. And we can choose to turn up the volume of purposeful empathy. When you’re listening to somebody tell a story and you’re holding space for that person to share something—and you’re listening with engagement—that triggers your purposeful or cognitive empathy.

“That actually feels good! The research shows that when we are feeling emotionally connected to somebody, even if they’re sharing a sad story, our brains light up in the same pleasure and reward centers as if we were having chocolate cake. We want to feel connected to one another.

“And when we choose to lean into empathy more regularly in our lives, we strengthen our empathic responses and we can help strengthen the empathic responses in others. We need to remember that kindness is currency—that we can choose to practice empathy and that it feels sooo good!


Care to read more?

GET HER NEW BOOK: Purposeful Empathy, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers across the U.S. and around the world.

CONNECT WITH HER ONLINE: Visit Anita’s website, which includes this page about her public speaking. That page includes a clickable button “Want me to speak?” that reaches Anita with your inquiry.

READ MORE BOOKS ABOUT CARING AND RESILIENCY: The good news is that there are many helpful men and women publishing books that contribute to this overall message of hope and caring. One book we’re highly recommending this year is Howard Brown’s Shining Brightly.

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  1. Howard Brown says

    David Crumm – thank you for an important article featuring Anita Nowak and her recently released book Purposeful Empathy. I can wait to read the book. Empathy is a life skill that needs to be nurtured and used daily. As a two-time stage IV cancer survivor, I try to be empathetic and open to receive empathy from others. Keep Shining Brightly!