“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”
Are you an empath? How does one even know?
Some time in my thirties my own answers to those questions presented themselves to me. I was watching some kids playing. One little brat tripped a playmate—a klutzy little boy—who fell like a ton of bricks, skinning a knee and a wrist. As he was falling I felt this sinking sensation in my gut…as if I were the one falling.
I’ve experienced that sensation many, many times since. It doesn’t matter who’s falling—a child, an adult…even a bad guy—nor if the fall occurs in real life, a movie or the tiny screen of my iPhone. As long as it’s a fellow human being I always end up sharing the drop. (It’s funny, though; I don’t remember ever feeling it when I see a pro football player falling. Why do you suppose that is?)
I also catch myself absorbing all kinds of other little human dramas—from kindnesses to conflict, gladness to grief. Is there something wrong with me? Do I just have too little emotion in my own life? At times I wish I could turn it off.
If Empathy 101 is simply learning to be aware of and experience others' pain, then the next semester would start instilling the ability to truly care what happens to them. It's what psychologists call "transcendence," a deep-seated desire to see and help others achieve their potential. Perhaps it takes an idealist like me to hope this sort of altruism would beat in the heart and soul of every person, organization and culture.
And I hope it applies not just to what happens to other human beings in the here and now, but even to what might happen in the future after we're dead and gone. I can think of no more telling measure of this kind of empathy than our wise, gentle care and handling of the environment so that future generations may enjoy the same kinds of joyful connection with Nature we experienced when we were young.
It gets beaten down, covered up…by an ugly
collaboration...conspiring to make what’s really
all about them feel like it’s all about us.
HARD-WIRED, SHORTED OUT
Empathy, like so many of our better, more practical emotions, is hard-wired into us at birth. How do I know this? First, there’s a wealth of research showing it. And there’s also an element of logic: why, if empathy is not meant to help guide our behavior toward other human beings, would I feel absolutely none of that sinking feeling when I witness an animal falling?
The good news is that this inherent spark of empathy can be kindled—through experience, teaching, role-modeling and the influence of Nature. The bad news? Judging from the growing number of folks who seem to have utterly lost it, apparently it can also be extinguished.
Like children’s inbred curiosity and wonder, empathy too often gets beaten down, covered up, by years of learned structure, stress and cynicism. By values drummed into us by an ugly collaboration of sometimes-dirty players like commerce, politics and the media—all conspiring to make what’s really all about them feel like it’s all about us.
Scheming, conflict, denigration and gotchas
—that’s what they’ve decided we want.
A FAUSTIAN BARGAIN
The dying out of empathy is not an illness; it is a symptom—of a disease brought on by the Faustian bargain the past few generations have signed onto: we get to make more money, accumulate more stuff, pretend to be “connected” with more people and information. In exchange for that illusion of power, knowledge and love, we agree to allow the circumference of our real, first-hand experience be ever shrunk, reduced to what’s determined by some algorithm to suit us, and then spoon-fed to us through a phalanx of little glowing screens.
Among the collateral damage inflicted by this attack has been the loss of empathy, that most precious survival mechanism, the one that used to give us true connection, allowed us to be kinder, more collaborative, more creative…and kept most of us from killing each other.
But someone's decided kindness and civility no longer sell ad space, air time or bandwidth. So, nearly everywhere one looks—entertainment, advertising, journalism, politics—it’s all gotten turned upside down. Now more and more of the human interaction we see on our screens involves scheming, conflict, denigration and gotchas.
One of the most obvious casualties, during this election year, is an entire political party—one claiming to represent more than half the people in the United States. It has turned, in the past decade or two, from its roots as the protector of individual freedoms and opportunity to an angry, take-no-prisoners ideology based on fear, judgement and control. (I'll let you decide for yourself which one that is.)
If that’s what the powers that be have decided we want, it’s far from what I consider being human to be all about.
Teach them that the way they see the world around them is a product of what’s going on inside them
THE WORLD IS A MIRROR
So, what do you want? Are you still able to see the essential core of goodness in every human being and truly care what happens to them? Can you still feel someone else’s hardship and pain in your gut, even folks who might be quite different from you? Do you care what happens to this precious planet even after your life on it is over?
After all we’ve traded away let’s take a step or two backward and revisit that Faustian bargain. If we won’t reclaim real connections with each other and with the earth for ourselves, let’s at least do it for our kids and grandkids. Teach them that the way they see the world around them is a product of what’s going on inside them—their awareness, their curiosity, their kindness, their sense of wonder. And teach them never again to bargain away those gifts.
And teach them that, at the very heart of what makes us human lies a generosity of seeing that makes what we perceive hinge directly on what we are willing to give of ourselves to that connection.
“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”