Bad news comes in threes, they say. In the last few days a friend’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer, another friend has lost her father, and a family has tragically lost a child. If this sort of thing is not actually happening to you, there’s nothing quite like a personal connection to bring it home with the full force of fear, tragedy or loss. There you are, living a perfectly happy life, and suddenly your insides are liquefied by shock, your mouth is dry, and your heart physically hurts. Your throat and eyes fill with tears, your head with questions.
Similarly, you might hear news of a friend’s success and feel the wildest elation. Or, depending on the kind of person you are, the aforementioned shock and horror—but let’s not go there for now.
The point is, you feel for other people. It’s called empathy, and all but the most interesting sociopaths amongst us have it.
In one of the many excellent animated talks on the website of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), economist and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin touches on the emerging science surrounding empathy (his latest book is The Empathic Civilisation; watch the ten-minute video, and also all the other videos, if only for the wonderful art).
In the 1990s, Rifkin says, an Italian laboratory discovered what are called mirror neurons in the brain. In tests, these light up when the subject observes another’s experience, essentially recreating that experience in the subject. In Rifkin’s words, “we’re soft wired to experience another’s plight as if it were happening to us.” The first drive, he says, is not aggression or utilitarianism, but sociability and affection—the drive to belong.
He traces the expansion of that empathic drive through history as technology and other factors shrink time and space, thus enabling empathy across ever-larger communities from tribes to religious groups to nation states. “Empathy is grounded,” he says, “in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be.” Is it possible, he asks, to extend our empathy to the whole of the human race, and to the biosphere? Could the ability to do this prove crucial to saving the human species and the planet?
Good question. Then why do we bleed emotionally when someone we know suffers, but are much less moved by the suffering of large, anonymous groups of people? Perhaps some of it has to do with certain kinds of experience being alien to ours. Could an American heiress living in a Manhattan penthouse possibly feel for an Indian living in a discarded sewer pipe—could she go beyond merely acknowledging the injustice, or thinking ‘there but for the grace of god go I’, to really feeling the horror of hunger, discomfort, and insecurity? Possibly not. But could she at least, in her own way, imagine herself into as proximate a situation as possible? As we used to say when I worked at the travel magazine, Let your mind travel; your body will follow.
I’m no scientist, but I’ll stick my neck out and offer the thesis that, too often, lack of empathy—for the daily tribulations of discomfort, deprivation, illness, trauma, and loss—is a failure of imagination. Sometimes it’s an honest-to-goodness lack of experience; for instance, it’s almost impossible to empathise with the pain of jealousy without having experienced it. But more often, it’s a lack of willingness to do the work of finding personal resonance. Perhaps it’s also about psychic limits: there’s nothing attractive about pain, and empathy can be bloodying and exhausting.
But maybe fellow-feeling is the only way to translate need into action. I’d say it’s worth the pain.