Tag Archives: empathy

Take the Time, Check In

WHO reports suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds globally, with a total of 800,000 lives lost every year. This data was compiled pre-pandemic and the assumption is that this year the data is going to look worse. 

As an actor and storyteller, I wanted to capture mental health in a short story, focus on one of the potential solutions, and drive that point home. It was an active decision to remove focus from the underlying reasons for depression. As of late, we’ve learned that depression can happen without an obvious trigger, as in the case of Deepika Padukone.

As one would expect, initially it took time to find people who wanted to invest time in a project about mental health but I found my key collaborators – Christina Perez and Emmanuel Vega. Christina Perez directed, edited, and created the background score. Emmanuel worked the sound and lights, among other things. The shoot was done in one location and completed in 3 hours.

In these trying times, the relevance of the message has increased and the collective consciousness has been almost forced to develop empathy to understand it. However, the message was relevant even before and will remain relevant even after. The ending of the short was designed to be something that lived online given the ubiquity and the growing relevance of the Internet in the current world. 

As a volunteer project, my team and I have nothing to gain from this video other than spreading a beneficial message. Please take the time, just 96 seconds, to watch the short film below!

Since the release of the short, the response has been very positive. A young musician from Kerala was inspired by the short and composed a song using the visuals from the short film. A doctor messaged me and said how this movie had impacted him; he started making calls to his coworkers to check in on them as they are working 80 hours/week.

Almost everyone who watched the short has loved the art and has had a key takeaway from it, however, not many have watched it. While it may seem that 70k views are a lot, remember that 800,000 people die due to mental health every year. We are just getting started!

Uday Krishna is an actor, writer, and data professional. Uday has acted in a bunch of shorts, plays, commercials and has written/directed plays and shorts.

Environmentalism Through Kid’s Kathas

Living in the world that all of us do today, it goes without saying that children across the spectrum need to read books that create awareness surrounding the environment and its inhabitants. 

When I think of an Indian publishing house for children, the name that first comes to mind is Katha. What sets Katha’s books apart from others is that it is known for facilitating learning through the power of storytelling. Storytelling is a beautiful way to address some of the most pertinent issues related to the environment and climate change, and the 32-year-old publishing house has time and again called for attention towards our planet through this distinctive approach, in books such as Tigers Forever!, The Mysteries Of Migration, and Polar Bear

Books that Make You Fall in Love with Nature

Sonam’s Ladakh

One of the most effective ways of getting children to care about the environment is to simply help them fall in love with it. Some of Katha’s older books instill a love for nature with their stories and themes. Each of their books has a varied message: In Run Ranga! Run!, one gets to explore the grasslands with the fearless baby rhinoceros who needs a friend; Walk the Rainforest with Niwupah and Walk the Grasslands with Takuri are tours of rainforests and grasslands with a hornbill and an elephant, respectively; On the Tip of a Pin Was… uncovers the science behind wormholes; The Gift of Gold is a mythical story from South African folklore is about a little girl who saves her village from drought. 

Manish Lakhani’s Sonam’s Ladakh tells a story through exquisite photography about a girl belonging to the semi-nomadic Changpa tribe, wandering shepherds in Ladakh. Young Sonam informs readers about animals in the Ladakh region that are her closest friends and “better than boxes of money”. She mentions goats, dogs, her father’s pashmina herds of sheep, and yaks that help grow food and whose wool make their tents. She also points out other animals in the region—the rare Eurasian otters, horses, and Himalayan wolves. The story that is bound to fascinate most children with its sheer novelty and imagery. The books ends with a section that discusses Ladakh’s many glaciers that are gradually melting due to the earth’s global warming, increasing pollution levels and the cutting of trees. The questions posed are aimed at making children think of ways in which all of us in our own way can contribute to caring for the environment.

Keeping it Simple

In a world filled with an overwhelming amount of information on environmental degradation, young children are most likely to gain sensitivity about the situation most through personal experience. Katha’s books have constantly aimed at bringing out simple storylines with characters that relate to most children.

In Who Wants Green Fingers Anyway?, Geeta Dharmarajan explores a mother’s obsession with her potted plants kept in her verandah. When her plants start mysteriously wilting and drooping, her husband researches the subject of how to keep them happy, leading him to attempt re-potting them. What follows is a comical saga, however, the key message has been surreptitiously slipped in—that the roots of plants get tangled up when their pots become too small for them.  

More recently, in The Mystery of the Missing Soap, Tobakachi, the wicked Asura and GermaAsura, along with their Coronavirus Army, make soap disappear in Dakshinapur, one of the happiest villages in the country. By tricking people in this way, they ensure that no one washes their hands, which makes them all very sick. That is until the helpful elephant, Tamasha and the fearless girl, Lachmi, show everyone how to make soap in order to win the battle against the Virus Army. The story, beautifully illustrated by Suddhasattwa Basu and Charbak Dipta, is followed by a simple recipe for making soap at home using reetha berries. By explaining the importance of washing one’s hands in order to prevent coronavirus, the book then dives into Katha’s famous “TADAA” (Think, Ask questions, Discuss, Act, and Take Action for the community) section which details what coronavirus actually is and what one can do to prevent oneself from getting it.

Big Ideas with a Heart

After getting kids to fall in love with nature through simple stories—and hence, getting them to care for the environment—the next step is to focus on concepts that help them think about pressing environmental issues that are affecting the world. Every narrative in Katha’s books is filled with common themes—or what the publisher likes to call ‘big ideas’. For instance, all of Katha’s environment books have recurring themes such as empathy, affection, kindness, collective action, and cues to switch to alternative eco-friendly habits.

Ma Ganga and the Razai Box weaves environmental concerns like pollution, soil erosion, and desertification with mythology. The Magical Raindrop humanizes and gives emotions to Mother Earth, formulating her character in a way that the readers feel she’s a person who feels happiness, sadness, anxiety, and joy just like all of us. Katha’s Thinkbook Series has been designed in a way to introduce young readers to big ideas such as “climate change, gender, and kindness through stories that inspire, aspire, and engage.” 

Educating through Stories

Katha’s founder, Padma Shri Geeta Dharmarajan, is an award-winning writer, editor, and educator. Her published works alone include more than 30 children’s books, many of which are Katha publications. Needless to say, environmental issues are very close to her heart. She is credited for having created Katha’s unique concept of StoryPedagogy, which combines India’s oral traditions and the 2,000-year-old Sanskrit text on the performing arts, Natya Shastra; an idea that she has seamlessly integrated with an earth-friendly curriculum.

While the stories get children to empathize with the characters and their situation—and thus, understand and imbibe an environmental concept—Katha’s final goal is to make children think deeper and take initiatives to act and make a difference. The insightful exercises that appear at the end of each book are created using the SPICE model (Student-centred, Problem-based, Integrated, Community-based, Electives, Systematic) as well as observations, teachers’ feedback, and research among children in the Katha Lab School.

Katha Lab School is a model and a center of creativity for the slum cluster of Govindpuri in New Delhi. Thus, Katha takes the storytelling approach a step further beyond its books too. The Katha Lab School, for instance, uses no traditional textbooks or a one-size-fits-all syllabus. Instead, its system of education is based on StoryPedagogy, a technique that is delivered through Active Story-Based Learning, which helps children to learn language, science, and mathematics, while developing general awareness and critical thinking skills through various stories and activities.

Katha’s StoryPedagogy is the new age of education – one that we can all benefit from adopting.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

Thank You, Elmer!

A decade and a half ago, I made the brave move to America. Although I spoke English and was well-versed with American culture, nonetheless, I found myself in the midst of a transcultural identity crisis. As Jhumpa Lahiri aptly put it, “I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new.”

After much floundering, I slowly came to realize that I needn’t have an identity crisis at all. Instead, I could choose to mindfully and respectfully tread between “the old” and “the new”, or as Lahiri calls it, “either side of the hyphen” to enjoy a rich transcultural identity. As a result, I decided to sport my Indian identity with flourish and simultaneously learned and embraced all that I could about this vastly different country I had decided to call home. This mindset reduced transition anxiety and became a general outlook for me.

Fifteen years later, life seems to have come full circle. Today, as a mom of two high-energy second-generation Indian American boys, I find myself seeking creative ways to make my children’s transcultural identity as fluid and seamless as possible. Like other first-generation immigrant parents, I too would like my preschooler and second grader to embrace cultures, both of their origin and birth, welcome diversity, be tolerant, and self-accept.

Here’s where my chance discovery of Elmer by David McKee comes in. Every time I read Elmer’s endearing story to my boys, I find it a charming exploration of identity, diversity and acceptance. Topics that are close to my heart. Here’s a summary of the story to offer some context: 

Elmer is a famous elephant. He’s not grey like others, but a patchwork of bright colors. He’s lively, cracks jokes, and is well-loved. But he’s weary of being different and wants to be like the rest in his herd. Early one morning, he sneaks out of the jungle to cover himself with the grey colored juice of a berry bush. Once covered in grey, he isn’t Elmer anymore, but just another elephant. He enjoys the anonymity and joins the herd. Soon a rain cloud bursts, and Elmer’s grey color washes off. His friends laugh and understand his conundrum of wanting to fit in. They decide to celebrate his uniqueness by instituting an annual ‘Elmer’s Day Parade’. On that day, all the elephants transform themselves into colorful patchwork elephants, and Elmer colors himself grey.   

This straightforward and poignant story has made me think about some ways in which I could extend the “Elmer conversation” with my boys and start taking baby steps to help them navigate their transcultural identity. Here are some learnings from Elmer and how I translate Elmer’s narrative into action:   

Colors are meaningful

Elmer’s heartwarming experience made me realize the merit in allowing children to see differences in color and be accepting of their own appearance.

It’s no secret that children notice color. They tend to be curious and ask inadvertently provocative questions like why their friend’s hair or skin color is lighter or darker than theirs. Providing thoughtful answers could help them understand and respect diversity and self-accept. A blanket response on the lines of “we’re all the same” is wrong on so many levels. It’s inaccurate, confusing, could impede curiosity and make kids (and later, as adults), dismissive of diversity and racial differences.  

Understanding roots and shoots

It’s human to want to belong, to want a sense of community, and be part of a social structure. Maybe that’s why Elmer wanted so badly to fit in with the rest in his herd. Our children are no different. For them to comfortably tread on “either side of the hyphen” and have that rich transcultural identity, it’s important for them to understand their roots and where they grow their shoots.

Putting up a map of the world, I found is an effective way to offer children a global cultural perspective and a sense of belonging. For one, it piques their interest about continents, countries, and the cultural plethora thriving across the globe. Perhaps because a map can trigger animated discussions like where they are situated in the world vis-à-vis grandparents and extended family, it’s an easy way to make questions of identity and belonging tangible for children.

Empathy is key

Elmer’s journey offers a gentle, yet firm reminder on the point around empathy and can spark numerous conversations from this perspective. It’s heartening to see the herd’s true expression of empathy toward the patchwork elephant by instituting an annual parade to celebrate Elmer’s uniqueness.  

My personal journey taught me that respect and empathy for intra and inter-group diversity is critical in order to have a rich transcultural identity. I found that interactions with ‘the others’ through an empathetic lens makes the following possible:

  • The temptation to jump at prejudiced, knee-jerk reactions is curbed.
  • Rationality sets in to arrive at thought-through conclusions.
  • Relationships are based on mutual tolerance, acceptance, and respect.

As adults, we can consciously extend the empathy message from Elmer’s experience to our children in everyday scenarios. For instance, I miss no opportunity in reminding my kids to put themselves in another individual or group’s shoes. At the playground, at school, or while reading a book, it’s always interesting to ask questions like “why do you think (s)he’s sad or happy?”, thereby attuning their little minds beyond themselves to the needs of others.  

To conclude

Elmer, the patchwork elephant’s story most delightfully weaves complex themes of identity, diversity and tolerance. Its narrative persuasively demonstrates that it’s okay to be different, and that diversity should be seen, embraced and celebrated.

Admittedly as of now, I’m not fully certain how Elmer can shape my children’s transcultural identity roadmap. But I know it’s a great start. I foresee revisiting the goofy patchwork elephant’s story often and our elementary “Elmer conversations” getting more nuanced as life’s situations evolve with passing time. For that, I sincerely thank Elmer!     

Nidhi Kirpal’s pre-kids life was dedicated to the complex field of Communication Sciences. After choosing to be a fulltime mother, reading and playing with her high energy boys has been a fascinating journey. Children’s literature (both western and Indian) has been an inspiring discovery for her, where she constantly sees the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.

The Phone Call From India That Changed My Life

Jet-lagged and in shock, I waited on a bright red couch in a small room labelled “Counselling” right off the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU) at the Christian Medical College and Hospital (CMC) in Vellore, India. A doctor from a team of critical care specialists delivered the prognosis with an empathy that showed recognition of their patient as a person, and of me as a daughter desperate to hold on to her parent: My mother was irreversibly paralyzed from the neck down and was fighting multiple life-threatening injuries.

Twenty-four hours earlier, before I walked into a nightmare as surreal as a Dali painting, my Sunday morning had been upended by a call from my distraught sister-in-law: She, my brother and my mother had met with a road accident on the Bangalore-Madras highway. My mother had been taken to CMC Vellore without a recordable pulse. My brother and my sister-in-law were, thankfully, not in danger.

Bidding farewell

On the flight from Boston to Chennai, I prayed and pleaded with the Universe, anchoring my mother with a love that felt oceanic in its immensity. I would cradle her with fierce tenderness for the next 21 days, at first devising an alphabet system of communication along with nods for “yes” and “no” when my mother was conscious — the various tubes down her throat, mouth and nose made verbal communication impossible — loving her, singing to her, making lame jokes, telling her stories, and soothing her. And when she faded into a coma, I talked to her Self, the one with the capitalized S, recalling stories from childhood, pouring into her my gratitude. I whispered prayers and words of love as her systolic blood pressure spiked past 250 and when her heart beat dropped to 35. My hope of bringing her home where we’d sit together in the garden and hear the birds sing as I read poetry to her changed to planning her last rites the way she would have wanted. And at the moment of her passing, my one hand on her heart and the other on her head, I bid her farewell with Ramanuja Acharya’s Tirumantram.

By then, CMC had become a second home. I almost lived there – I ate there — the staff at the cafeteria gave me extra chips, the doctors let me sit for hours by my mother’s bedside, a Reverend prayed with me, nurses held me in their arms as I left the ICU in tears. Security officers, who see more than 8,000 outpatients a day, gave directions with courtesy, pharmacists were kind, and doctors served. Authority sat lightly on their shoulders.

One doctor, whom I began to think of as a friend, brought me a pair of unmatched ICU slippers, cracking a joke about two left feet. He watched the monitors carefully as I answered my mother’s unspoken questions about where she was and why, and one night he even helped push her stretcher when the hospital was short of staff. Another doctor sent out an attendant to buy me juice after I almost fainted one afternoon from exhaustion and low blood sugar.

The head of Neurology spoke to me for nearly an hour about what was going on in my mother’s comatose brain. The spine surgeon sounded heartbroken when he told me my mother was no longer moving her fingers. I’d politely ambush people walking down the corridor with stethoscopes around their necks to explain a medical point to me, which they always did with great patience. And I saw these brilliant, top-notch doctors at one of India’s leading hospitals extend empathy to everyone alike without discrimination — I had never before encountered empathy as an institutional culture.

The humanization of medicine is not just a mirror of our social character, of how we, as a society, accord value to our fellow human beings; research shows that empathy from caregivers leads to better health outcomes while reducing healthcare costs.

Findings from a 2012 study in Parma, Italy, showed that patients of physicians who scored high on empathy had a significantly lower rate of acute metabolic complications from diabetes compared to patients of doctors with moderate and low empathy scores. Research also shows that compassion reduces burnout among physicians and medical students. Almost all of us know someone subjected to unnecessary tests by doctors trying to recover costs on expensive equipment. In the case of my cousin, an angiogram was performed on her father after he had died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. One can only imagine the plight of the poor and the marginalized.

At CMC, paying patients subsidize healthcare for those who cannot afford it. And those of us who do pay are billed at least a third less than what leading private hospitals would typically charge. Dr. Kishore Pichamuthu, who heads CMC’s Medical ICU, said that doctors are given the authority to write off expenses incurred by the poorest patients. He pointed out that people are drawn to CMC to serve, motivated by the academic and intellectual rigor, and the opportunity to develop the next generation of doctors — all of which are institution-building factors.

I asked several doctors how everyone showed such a high level of compassion at CMC. Their answer? CMC’s selection process for undergraduate and graduate students, and behavioral transference within the system.

The right fit

The 100-year-old non-profit institution has successfully developed a method of admitting students who will fit in and add to the culture of medicine as a service. “We look for character, aptitude and attitude,” said Dr. V.I. Mathan, professor, and a retired CMC director. “Our selection process is central to our culture, and to the profession to which we commit our lives.”

Prior to the now mandatory centralized common counseling for selection to medical colleges — which evaluates applicants on marks, not aptitude, as critics say — up to 45 CMC faculty members extensively evaluated potential candidates over three days. All selected students are required to serve for two years in an area of need — mission hospital, the Army, a rural slum, HIV or leprosy centers. College fees are set at Rs. 3,000 p.a. so that doctors are not driven by return on fee investment. Fees at private colleges are as high as Rs. 3 crores.

NEET, the common entrance test, is a welcome move that will hopefully reduce corruption in private colleges. A merit-based exam, it should also help standardize the quality of applicants nationally. But in the case of non-profit institutions like CMC that have a proven track record, some amount of autonomy in the selection process is not only necessary, it is vital to sustaining its culture of medical excellence, which serves as an example to hospitals everywhere.

The essay was first published in The Hindu on July 15, 2018. 

Sujata Srinivasan is an award-winning Connecticut-based journalist whose work has appeared extensively in NPR’s Connecticut regional station WNPR, Forbes India, and Connecticut Business Magazine. She currently reports on healthcare for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team (C-HIT). She can be reached on Twitter @SujataSrini