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Only Compassionate Action Can Bridge the Empathy Gap


Source: license
Source: license

A portion of this article contains excerpts from Daniel Goleman’s book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.

Annie came to America while she was pregnant to assure her abusive husband would never be able to reach their children, as being born on American soil would make them citizens. She has been waiting for her green card for seven years, terrified she’ll be deported and separated from her twin boys. They live in a small, two-bedroom apartment and her boys walk five miles to school through a questionable neighborhood to get to school every day while she works three jobs. She leaves before sunrise and gets home well after dark every day, and hasn’t had a day off in three years. Her only solace is their elderly neighbor, Rosa. She loves cooking dinner for the boys and helping them with their homework, as her own children are grown and gone.

Susan is a CEO at a major corporation, and can not only afford childcare, but to have live-in assistance around the house. She can stock her fridge with the best, organic food, and her children are able to take weekly horseback riding and water polo lessons. She lives in a gated community, drives an eco-friendly car, and is able to take time off at her leisure to spend with her children. She went to college for business so she could take over her father’s corporation when he retired, and her children will never have to worry about affording a higher education.

Annie and Susan are similar women who live in the same city. They’re both single working mothers. They love their two children, and work hard to provide them with the best lives possible. They are the same age, like the same music, and are both reading a Milan Kundera novel in their free time. Annie tries to order a coffee (the sole luxury she allows herself to splurge on) and is fumbling around for change at the bottom of her purse. She’s desperate to avoid the public embarrassment that comes with not being able to afford $3.92 for a drink. She apologizes profusely for holding up the line, and manages to leave a crumpled, well-intentioned dollar bill in the tip jar. Susan, behind her in line, taps her foot impatiently and audibly sighs, even though she could easily buy Annie twenty coffees without ever noticing a lack in funds. When it’s finally Susan’s turn, she doesn’t look up from her phone as she orders, and puts an X over the tip space on her credit card receipt.

Why wouldn’t Susan just help Annie, or the hard-working people at the coffee shop?

In Daniel Goleman‘s recent book, A Force for Good, he interviewed Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Throughout his studies and a series of experiments, Dr. Keltner has concluded that in direct encounters, a person of higher status – or privilege – is significantly more prone to disregarding a person of lower status. On the contrary, a person of lower status is much more likely to pay attention and show compassion to other people, regardless of their status.

“Those with few resources and fragile circumstances – like a single mother working two jobs to pay her bills who needs a neighbor to look after her three-year-old – depend on having good relationships with those may one day turn to for help,” Goleman writes.


Wealthier individuals, in contrast, are able to afford help as needed – they don’t rely on the goodwill of the people surrounding them. Keltner suggests that because the rich can afford to tune out other people, they also learn to tune out the needs and suffering of others. In organizations and corporations, he observed that when high- and low- ranking people interact, the higher person avoids eye contact, interrupts, and steam rolls over the conversation.

John Ogbu, the late Nigerian anthropologist from UC Berkeley, noted that Berkely had a de facto caste system, much to Goleman’s surprise. Ethnic minorities and the while middle class were centralized in different, but defined, parts of town. The schools were in between them, separating the caste lines.

“The moment he pointed [the caste lines] out, I saw he was right. But until then that glaring fact had been under the social radar for me – while I was going to those very schools, I hadn’t given it a second thought,” Goleman reflects.

The Dalai Lama has a lot to say on this topic of socioeconomic divides, and added the aspect of faith to the conversation. Followers of certain religions believe social order determines their destiny. If someone is in a lower class, it is because they deserve to be there. If someone is in a higher class, it is because they have a greater destiny.

[Listen to The Empathy Gap, an excerpt from A Force for Good.]

The wealthy and elite have many reasons for justifying their choice to ignore the needs and suffering of those around them. They displace the blame to the elect, saying change is out of their control or this is the way it’s always been (a feeble guise for their willful ignorance). They may profess “God made them [the worse off] that way,” or believe a divine being decided these people should be below them. The Dalai Lama dismisses this as totally wrong, and nothing but flimsy excuses for callousness. He calls upon people with the privilege and ability to make change to do so.

“You can repeat ”˜equality, equality’ a thousand times,” the Dalai Lama says, asking his followers to act, not just sympathize. “But in reality, other forces take over.” Awareness without action following means nothing.

There is little empathy in the business and political leaders of today, and little thought is given to how it will affect those without access to power when they make decisions. This callousness makes the gap between the classes, between the tops and bottom of organizations, between the castes invisible. This lack of compassion becomes the norm when it isn’t acknowledged, and isn’t just a problem in Berkeley, California. It’s prevalent everywhere, and can only be changed by action.

Like Gandhi once said, “Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use.”

Become a force for good

Join A Force for Good initiative here.

Audio excerpts

Listen to other excerpts from A Force for Good:

Wise Selfish

The Empathy Gap

A Boyhood Passion

Constructive Anger vs. Destructive Emotions

Partnering with Science

Doing Good While Doing Well


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B-Corporation Profile: The Pour of a Candle is a Living Wage

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Burmese women refugees at Prosperity Candle’s studio in Easthampton, MA (credit: Prosperity Candle)

Too many of today’s news stories feature ruthless businessmen crumbling to greed and selfishness. Is there any hope out there for goodwill to survive? Luckily, there might be. A B-Corporation is a business with an explicit mission to benefit the greater good for humanity or the environment, as well as make a profit.

In Easthampton, Massachusetts, Prosperity Candle is a pristine example of a small B-Corp doing everything it can to change the world. Under the leadership of Ted Barber, Prosperity Candle trains women in candle-making and employs them at living wages after they have been relocated to the U.S. from overseas refugee camps.

Prosperity Candle has also helped train more than 100 Iraqi women – mostly war widows – in candle-making and entrepreneurship, giving them the ability to start their own thriving businesses. Their sister non-profit, Prosperity Catalyst, received funding from the U.S. State Department to expand the program to include 600 Iraqi widows. Prosperity Candle’s reach has found its way to Haiti, as well. They have given 12 women from domestic violence shelters in Northern Haiti the skills to start their own cooperative.

Sealing the Cracks

Refugee women are typically given a year of support from federal and state programs, during which time they are expected to find work and pay all of their own expenses. They often find themselves in minimum wage, temporary positions, made explicitly harder with language barriers. Facing many obstacles with a minimal a safety net, it’s very easy for these women to fall through the cracks.

Back in 2010, Prosperity Candle asked a group of refugee women what they truly need in terms of support. They were simple and clear: living wages, a steady income, opportunities to take ESL classes, flexible hours, a harassment-free workplace, and resources to understand the laws of their new home. Ted did not find these needs out of reach, and vowed to provide them double the minimum wage, transportation, and flexible schedules – among other supports. He wants his employees to be safe and treated with respect, and to help them get back on their feet not only so that they can survive, but also thrive.

“We’re very explicit,” Ted says. “We’re here to help women thrive. Minimum wage doesn’t even cover the bare necessities.”

Prosperity Candle women
Iraqi women learning candle-making in Baghdad (credit: Heber Vega)

B-Smart About the Bottom Line

Prosperity Candle was recently added to the top ten percent of B-Corps in the world for their size. Ted’s long-term goal is rather simple: to make a difference. He wants investors to see they are providing amazing opportunities not only to women who desperately need it, but for a healthy financial environment. He wants the organization to scale gradually and sustainably so that more lives can be impacted without growing so rapidly they fizzle out.

“I want to grow this business in a very specific way,” he says. “It’s not just employing women refugees here in the Pioneer Valley, but actually making them profit-sharing partners. I’m always exploring how Prosperity Candle can be a vehicle for greater impact.”

Personally, Ted’s goal is to merge his past experience in international trade and economic development with his present life dedicated to a creating a sustainable social enterprise that helps women and families lift themselves out of poverty.

B-Corps embody the philosophy of positive capitalism, which is when a business moves forward, but also makes it possible for others to move forward, too. The Dalai Lama says your goal should be to get on your feet, and then help others get on their feet. Like the ripples from a pebble thrown into a pond, the act of goodwill started by positive capitalism can start a chain reaction.

Ted admires any organization that has gone through the rigorous requirements to become a B-Corp, and considers it to be one of the best measures available for assessing an organization’s commitment to social and environmental sustainability. Even though there’s only about 1,500 B-Corps in the world, it’s an extremely active community.

“I support businesses that take on the challenges of doing things the right way, that care as much about the common good as their own personal success. That is what the B-Corp movement is all about,” he says.

Prosperity Candle women 2
Haitian women learning candle-making in Cap-Hatien (credit: Prosperity Candle)

Help Yourself To Help Others

In Daniel Goleman’s new book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, he quotes some advice the Dalai Lama gave a crowd of college students:

“The global economy is like a roof over all of us. But it depends on individual pillars for support. First take care of yourself financially. Then, step-by-step, stand on your own feet in order to help others.”

When asked if he could give any advice to his younger self, or to an entrepreneur looking to make the same sort of lifestyle transition into B-Corps like he did, Ted laughed and said, “I feel like there’s a talk in me that wants to come out… with any start up – whether it’s nonprofit, for-profit, social enterprise or tech – you’re going to have more people tell you why it won’t work than why it can. You have to filter out an onslaught of nay-sayers because they’re there in spades. Well-meaning and genuinely intending to help, but more inclined to punch holes than be supportive. This is my third venture, and I’m beginning to see a pattern. My advice is to seek out people who love your passion, regardless of whether they think your idea is crazy.”

Prosperity Candle truly embodies the words of the Dalai Lama. Ted Barber got on his feet, and now is spending the rest of his life helping others join him. And who knows? Maybe we’ll see him on a TED Talk in the future. Until then, Prosperity Candle will continue to be a model for other entrepreneurs and businesses interested in making a difference and joining the B-Corp movement.

Learn more about Prosperity Candle’s mission and initiatives at

The audiobook for A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World is available for pre-order. The 6-disc set and digital download will be available on June 23, 2015. Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.

Pre-order the print book here.

Join the Force for Good initiative here.

A Force for Good audiobook