When I was three years old, my parents embarked on a yearlong exodus across eight countries in Asia. My dad was ready to abandon an “autopilot” existence. He craved that elusive 5%, where people don’t sleepwalk, but walk with eyes wide open to the meaning, feeling, answer and beauty of life. He convinced my mother to come along for the ride with three young children. We travelled between Crete and Katmandu in a VW Van.
No itinerary. No agenda. No Airbnb. Just the open road.
Although I was a little girl, and the memories are like black and white reels from an old film, this trip changed the trajectory of my life. From as far back as my memories of standing in a village in Pokhara, Nepal, I felt like an outsider looking in, with a combination of curiosity and compassion.
A decade after we returned home to Montreal, I met a beautiful-souled boy named Michael who told me I would change the world. I didn’t believe him. But it didn’t matter. The seed his faith planted ignited a sense of unquenchable purpose.
At twenty, I set my sights on becoming a professor. Never a master of moderation, I locked myself in libraries for years, immersed in the study of Asian Religion, Anthropology, Compassion, Mysticism and the Goddess Tradition. I loved it, but I was very lonely.
After graduate school, a fellowship to complete an “undercover” ethnography in Japan, and an internship with one of America’s finest photojournalists; I switched gears, launching a career in the nonprofit world. Whereupon, for the last thirteen years, I’ve encountered countless people who, despite the pain and suffering that surrounds us, confirm my deepest belief to be true: the world is Good.
When I look back on the last three decades, despite so much rabid press about The Bystander Effect (from Kitty Genovese, well before I was born, to the Lululemon Murder), from all the radicalism and hatred that we see rearing its head all around us, I invariably draw the same conclusion:
Empathy is the answer. It is the how, the why and the what. It’s also the way.
It’s also my 5%. Just over a year ago, I left a full-time career in the nonprofit sector to pursue two dreams that were erupting in me for years, but that I kept, to a certain extent, bottled up. Like many of us, I was wearing golden handcuffs. It began to feel like I was on autopilot. But it was hard to break free because life was good and I had a job with a social purpose.
It took a few years and the faith and support of my husband for me to respond to the voice within me that was beckoning me to the 1% of my 5%.
Leaving my career in the world of philanthropy behind was in many ways the biggest challenge and the greatest blessing. Since then, I have been able to dedicate myself to my social enterprise, Sappho by Kim Smiley, a jewelry business that hires marginalized women, pays them a living wage, and raises money for charity.
One year ago, I launched a project that I conceptualized six years before. It started as a yearlong, humble social experiment on Facebook. My goal was to show the world that empathy is contagious. Yesterday, we celebrated the project’s first birthday, and have close to 115,000 followers.
Because of the momentum we built during the last year, I decided to continue The Empathy Effect with the #EmpathyPledge. It’s a promise to practice one act of empathy every day, symbolized by a lapel pin, which is, to me, a badge of honour. And of course, with all proceeds going to charity.
Our world is dying for empathy.
Instead of bemoaning the darkness, we need to embrace the light.