I found some words about Ubuntu as well as the  above photo and story.  I don't know if the above is apocryphal but it feels good and certainly is an example of empathy.  Credit to the oracles of Wikipedia and Tumblr.


Ubuntu: "I am what I am because of who we all are."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered a definition in a 1999 book:
"A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed."

Tutu further explained Ubuntu in 2008:
"One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity."

Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows:
"A traveller through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu, but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?"

I keep reading the research regarding empathy.  Of course, I find it really interesting.  If you are reading this, I assume you are at least curious.  Let me summarize some of what I have learned. 
1.  People are born with a certain "talent" for empathy.  It varies from person to person.  Most of us are adequately endowed to work with others well.
2.  The empathic talent can be developed or suppressed through experience.  It should/must be encouraged, especially in those of us that have moderate to weak empathy.  Those that are less empathic need to know it is important and learn ways to navigate the world.
Our system of educating healthcare professionals tends to suppress empathy.
This suppression is accumulative with empathy decreasing as they progress.
Unfortunately, patients clearly have poorer outcomes when their doctors/nurses have weak empathy. 
Weak or absent empathy could be blamed for a great many of the world's problems.
Let me pose a question.  Who would have stronger empathy for you?
Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?  Is it an important facet for our president?
Sympathy and empathy are not the same.  They are often confused.  The difference is......upon whom are we focusing.  Empathy is understanding the feelings of another being.  Sympathy is the activation of your own emotions in response to another being.  The issue is that empathy is about that other person and sympathy is about you.  In healthcare we can get in trouble when we allow our personal "stuff" to muddy our judgement.  Although a compassionate doctor may emotionally resonate with a patient, the important issue is to understand the patients feelings and not allow our own to get in the way.  The confusion between empathy and sympathy has very unfortunately led to justifying a cold disconnected approach with the excuse of lack of time and danger to self.  That is wrong and results in bad medicine.  --Dave

Thank you for your comments below,  Kathy.  I think you are spot on.
Dr. Hojat, from Jefferson Medical College in Pennsylvania, states in his book and multiple studies that health care students become less and less empathetic as their education progresses.  This is true for both medical and dental students.
They become gradually less empathetic as they progress through professional and residency.  Other researchers have shown the same phenomenon.  There are examples in the reading list.  This is diametrically opposed to what other research shows is needed, better outcomes for patients when their provider has greater empathy.  We are teaching them to be less empathetic to the detriment of our patients.  --Dave

Thank you for your comments below, Kathy.

The "empathy instruments" show that the students become less empathetic with time.  There is a move to attempt to select more empathetic people for medical training by altering the MCAT.  But, how will the behavior of attending physicians change to enhance the empathy skills of these new physicians?  I can tell you from my residency that there were instructors that would actively discourage empathy, both by word and example.  That made it very hard for me at times.

I recently heard a TED talk in which a college instructor, Sam Richards, discussed the difficulty and usefulness of empathy for an Iraqi insurgent.  I can't help thinking about the recent riots in the middle east over that horrible video.  Can those of us who are not Muslims understand/empathize with the rioters?  Why do the rioters feel the way they do?  Is this way of thinking completely foreign?  Remember, that empathy does not mean that you agree or even sympathize.  Only that you understand.  And if we can, does it get us any closer to improving relations or solving problems?   And can Muslims empathize with the non-Muslim people in the US and Europe that are standing on the principle of free speech?  Or are the cultures simply incompatible?
I have treated fearful people since I first saw patients as a student.   I  increasingly became concerned with patient fear.   Sedation was incorporated into my practice to improve the ability to see patients that were fearful.  The cause of their fear became more and more relevant to me.  I discovered that I needed to hire more empathetic employees and I needed to address my own empathy.  I started to study empathy and soon realized that empathy in healthcare, or lack of empathy,  was a huge issue.  In my own office I adopted the practice of a new patient interview in which the focus was on the patients goals, values, and concerns.  It was an epiphany.  Far too many patients told me between tears that "No doctor has ever listened to me before.....ever.  This is the first time."  That impressed and distressed me.  I knew that treatment outcomes were effected by the providers empathy.  This was also supported in the medical literature that I was reading.  What is your experience, either as a healthcare provider or a patient?