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David Johnston talks about his love of family, his deep, abiding respect for the Queen, and why he’s called 'Grandpa Book' by his 14 grandkids.Rideau Hall/Handout

In the early pages of his new book on empathy, former governor general David Johnston tells a story about how a simple act of kindness affected his life. He was 14 and a promising hockey player, who, like most kids in his hometown of Sault Ste Marie, Ont., dreamed of making it to the NHL.

His family did not have a lot. His dad had a drinking problem and his stoic mother, who effectively raised and supported Johnston and his two siblings, could not afford to buy him new hockey equipment. Like many other kids in the hard-scrabble mining town, he was making do with hand-me-downs.

Rumours were flying that a scout from the Toronto Maple Leafs was coming for a playoff game, and out of the blue, Johnston got a call from the local sporting-goods store owner who asked him to pop by. “When I arrived, Mr. Taylor handed me a new pair of skates in my size,” Johnston writes. “There was no fuss or fanfare. He simply handed me a shiny black pair of CCM Specials, wished me luck, and disappeared.”

That small gesture – which spoke volumes to a boy of limited means but big dreams – was the beginning of Johnston’s lifelong fascination with empathy and his fervent belief that simple acts of kindness can profoundly alter people’s lives and ultimately change the world for the better. In his new book, Empathy: Turning Compassion into Action, co-authored with Brian Hanington, Johnston shares story after story of people – teachers, coaches and humble shop keepers – who looked out for him, mentored him and ultimately set him on a course to lead an exemplary life, which, at its core, has always been about service to others.

Johnston’s curriculum vitae is humbling. In addition to being a star athlete (who would most likely have made the NHL if he hadn’t opted instead to focus on his studies), he was a law professor for 45 years, a principal of McGill University, the president of University of Waterloo, and served, from 2010 to 2017, as one of Canada’s most beloved governor generals. Armed with degrees from Harvard, Cambridge and Queen’s, he’s travelled the world, raised five daughters with his wife and high school sweetheart, Sharon, written or co-written 36 books, and stayed true to one fundamental principal, kindness begets kindness.

Even in the face of the myriad problems facing the world – climate change, entrenched social ills such as racism, violence and wealth disparity – he is convinced empathy – turned into compassionate action – can save us from ourselves. In a wide-ranging conversation with The Globe from his farm near Ottawa, the 81-year-old talks about his love of family, his deep, abiding respect for the Queen, and why he’s called “Grandpa Book” by his 14 grandkids.

In the foreword to your book, Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella writes that the world is currently at “profound risk from too little empathy.” Do you agree?

It’s a difficult time in history. After the Second World War we had a period of relative peace. The international community came together and worked, for a time, for the common good. Since then, we’ve had globalization that hasn’t met its full promise. We’ve had the big financial crisis. We have climate change and its dire implications. We have the pandemic, which laid bare all our vulnerabilities and inequities, and now we have this bestial war by Putin. We do have a lack of empathy from some leaders and grotesque examples where power is everything. However, all of this is why an informed citizenry is so important. It is more important than ever to have trustworthy, empathetic people in leadership positions who are prepared to serve the public good.

How do you define empathy?

Empathy is not so much about feeling what someone else feels as it is about entering and understanding that person’s experience with such clarity that one can see how to help. Thus, empathy is the deliberate movement from compassion to action. A few years ago, I wrote a book about trust. This book is about empathy. I believe hope resides in the middle of those two things.

Is there a common trait empathetic people share?

They are attentive and sensitive to the needs of others. They are people who don’t take themselves too seriously. They can see when other people are struggling or need help, and they respond. They tend to be better listeners than speakers. And they believe in the importance of being kind to one another and of being gentle with yourself.

Ms. Abella gives you high praise in her intro when she says, and I paraphrase, “Empathy is not simply the title of your book, it’s the title of your life.” Where did your empathy come from?

I learned empathy from the kindness of the community I grew up in. I learned it from my mom, who besides running the household, worked as a nurse’s aide on night shifts at the local hospital. Never once did she complain. I learned empathy from my wife and my daughters, who taught me the set of skills now broadly referred to as emotional intelligence. They showed compassion in ways I hadn’t considered, sorted sense from nonsense with uncomplicated ease, overcame challenges with courage that I did not possess, and, above all, approached life with an unquenchable enthusiasm that gave rise to my own. My family was my emotional schoolhouse, and the education I got at their hands has been more useful and more precious to me than any of my formal degrees.

Who is one of the most empathetic people you have met?

I would start with the Queen. There are three reasons she tops my list. First, she had a natural graciousness. Second, she believed in the principle of the leader as servant, and she did it with more dedication than anyone I’ve known. Third, her values were based on her Christian faith. In her Christmas message the story she used most often was the Good Samaritan. “Love thy neighbour” was a message she repeated, again and again. When I was governor general I also had the privilege of handing out the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers to 25 people each year. These are our country’s unsung heroes. To a person they were humble, even bashful. I remember one woman saying, “Why are you recognizing me, I just run the local Meals on Wheels program.” She did it for 25 years. These are good, decent people who get up every day and go about doing decent things to make the world better.

What is the biggest different between being a parent and a grandparent?

Your sole job in life as a grandparent is to love them. Just as my own kids taught me many things, my grandchildren are doing the same. The learning never stops and I am so grateful.

Your nickname at Harvard was “Fullbore” because you never did anything half-way. What does a person with your gumption do to relax?

I had a hip replaced two weeks ago so I can’t be as active as I usually am. Physical fitness has always been extremely important to me. I’m called Grandpa Book because I read a lot. I read partly for pleasure but mainly for ideas and inspiration. I’m working on another book right now. Sharon and I also love to see our friends. As you get older you appreciate more the richness of friendship. And you become more conscious that you have to work at it.

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