Week Six Letter from the President


As I flipped through the latest issue of Time, I came across a timely article about a 2020 study by the Society for Human Resource Management titled the “State of Workplace Empathy.” The article was titled “The Empathy Trap,” which should signal that Week Six at Chautauqua is anything but a “group hug,” feel-good week. In the workplace, the 2020 study noted that people are tired from working all the time — further exacerbated by the no-boundaries, at-home office during COVID — trying to sort out caregiving responsibilities from the young to those needing elder care and dealing with the ever-changing threat levels of COVID-19. All of that makes sense, but here’s the kicker as it relates to our week: most of those interviewed for the study also found that Americans, in general, have an “empathy deficit.” 

This week at Chautauqua, we explore “Building a Culture of Empathy.” Creating understanding and compassion, empathy is critical in navigating our world and building community. Empathy might have a reputation associated with emotionality or sentimentality, but science indicates that it’s wired into our very being, with practical applications in lives. What does empathy look like in action, from healing systemic divides and leading through times of crisis? Instilling and normalizing empathy has the potential to help us connect across our most polarizing differences and survive our most tragic times, so how can we work together to build a lasting culture of empathy? 

And here’s some additional food for thought from recent studies on empathy: most Americans want to be the recipient of it, but aren’t keen to provide it if it pushes their own understanding of the world. As the Time article noted about one employee’s views, “it has to be OK if I mess up sometimes” but that same employee wasn’t open to giving their employer the same grace. This sounds a lot like the divides we were exploring in previous weeks, right? So what do we do about it? 

In our companion Interfaith Lecture Series, we look at a week with the same title. In recent years, a trait frequently cited as essential to the flourishing of humankind is empathy, an impulse manifested in all the world’s religions. Connected with compassion and altruism, it arises out of a willingness to care, to endeavor to understand, and to place oneself within the human experiences of others. In this week, we seek interfaith voices who are living this capacity, and inspiring and motivating it in others. Perhaps there are some answers to our earlier questions from the likes of Brian McLaren or Edgar Rodriguez or Jose Arellano or Steve Avalos? 

Continuing our dialogues on the climate, Chautauqua’s Climate Change Initiative this week partners with Chautauqua Cinema to present the film “The Magnitude of All Things” and the short, “What About Our Future?” in collaboration with Toronto’s Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival. Show time is 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 6, and it’s included with Traditional and Grounds Access Passes, though space in the cinema is limited. Reservations can be made at

While we spend our week on empathy, I want to thank Chautauquans — staff and non-staff participants — for the empathy exhibited as we had to implement our COVID protocols in our Youth and Family Programs this past week. We navigate more than themes in community; we also embrace moments of challenge and moments of celebration. I hope we’ll be back to full youth programming soon, and I’m looking forward to Old First Night and the Old First Night Run/Walk, reminders of the rich legacy, heritage and fortitude that has served Chautauqua for almost 150 years. As we enter Week Six, let’s bring that fortitude and faith, empathy and example, to all we do. Have a great week, Chautauqua! 

Tags : Building a Culture of EmpathyempathyFrom the Presidentmichael e. hillthe empathy trapWeek six
Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill