83. Arousing Empathy

The word “empathy” is increasingly in use following the horrific scenes of Syrian refugee children sleeping on the concrete floors, lost and exhausted, begging for food, and swept along by incomprehensible events. I vividly associate with these young ones because I was in similar situations in France in 1940-41 while my parents were trying to escape from the clutches not only of the Germans but also from the French fascists — not so different from the vicious Hungarian fascists today. Memory and empathy hurl me into the contemporary scenes and I profoundly wish I could save some of the youngsters in the way I was rescued by a humanitarian group.

I remember holding on to my mother for security during our narrow escape from the fast advancing Nazis in France during WWII. It was a harrowing time, but I never realized how close we were to death. I only suffered much later when, during our confinement in a detention camp, I was infected with a usually fatal recurrent fever (which killed many of the children around me.) While interned, I was semi-conscious, lying in a cot for a few weeks and only realizing that I was getting better when I saw the much-relieved faces of my parents.

Family relationships at that age are crucial in the development of one’s capacity for empathy. Nicholas Kristof , in his column this week in the New York Times, writes: :“If you don’t see yourself or your family members in those images of today’s refugees, you need an empathy transplant.”1 I suspect that is exactly what all exceptional narcissists, like Donald Trump, need because they spend so much time and energy promoting themselves that their brains have no space for empathy. However, I also wonder whether our feelings of empathy are not being over-stretched by the media and the internet? It is impossible for us to relate to all those suffering around the globe. Empathy relates to the feeling: “That could be me!” We are presented with ever more distressing images of suffering refugees from all too many quarters. Genuine empathy for those outside our own realm of experience is rare. Are the multitude of daily horrors beginning to erode our capacity for empathy?

In the first week of September, a “roving” Empathy Museum opened in London, dedicated to helping visitors to develop their capacity to put themselves into the shoes of others. Roman Krznaric, its founder and cultural thinker, believes that empathy can be a guiding light for the art of living and a powerful tool for social change.2 Krznaric wants us to rethink our priorities in life and tackle social problems from violent conflicts to everyday prejudice. His desire to create a global revolution in human relationships through empathy is certainly an ideal.   Turning the idea of “Empathy” into yet another museum is more problematic. Empathy adds a dimension to our spiritual lives which we can only appreciate as we experience it. Stuffing the idea into a museum is unlikely to enrich us.

Because human nature is so complex, individuals do not respond uniformly to the same set of circumstances. Consequently, empathy must be seen as a set of constructs rather than a single unipolar social response. The English word is derived from the classical Greek word ‘empatheia’, which incorporated both passion and suffering.3 It has a number of differing definitions ranging from having a desire to help others and caring for them, to having emotions that somehow match those of another being. The word can also incorporate the way we reduce the differences between the self and the other. It can also discern what another may be experiencing.

Empathy is distinct from pity, compassion, and sympathy. Pity is “feeling sorry” for another who may be in trouble and in need of help. Compassion and sympathy incorporate feelings of concern for another, of shared humanity. In empathy the feelings are “with” another in a spontaneous sharing of affect. We may be mirroring the emotional state that another may be experiencing. It is important to accept that empathy is always a distinctly positive and sympathetic relation. Empathy leads to altruistic action and to sympathy and is never turned off by extremes of another’s distress. Empathy is one of the deep ways we connect with others, saying:” We are in sync.” Alas, not all of us are capable of feeling and sharing another’s emotions.

Our ever increasing understanding of the nature of empathy started in the research of psychotherapists and now encompasses the expanding explorations of molecular neurology. Carl R. Rogers pioneered research in effective psychotherapy in mid-20th century. This led to promoting empathy for those helping patients in care. Today neuro-empathy has become a growing field with neurologists examining its functioning in the brain. Laboratory measures of empathy show that mirror neurons are activated during the arousal of sympathetic responses. Yes, the researchers believe empathy can be re-enforced; that we could become more empathic.

The issue of gender differences in empathy is also being examined, On average, women score higher than males on what is known as the “Empathy Quotient” (EO.) Research suggest that we are more willing and able to empathize with those most similar to ourselves, in particular when it comes to gender but extends to those with similar socio-economic backgrounds. Women have found that empathy promotes their social relationships and permits them to relate more intimately with others. Effectively, empathy plays an important role in raising their children. The actress Judy Garland affirmed this ability to relate when she said: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all be a little more gentle with each other, a little more loving, have a little more empathy, and maybe we’d like each other a little bit more.”4

Women have been more frequent readers of novels than men and as Barbara Kingsolver has written :”Good fiction creates empathy,. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life.” Fictional characters can become almost as real as the thoughts of the reader. The ability to situate yourself in the position of the character in a novel is a sophisticated imaginative process, but it can be improved through reading and unconsciously enhanced.

Both sexes recognize that eye contact is important in augmenting our feelings of empathy. As Henry David Thoreau observed: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” We seem to make a corresponding immediate connection between the tone of voice and the inner feelings of the speaker. This is evident in the way we react to the characters portrayed in theatrical performances. “Our job as actors is empathy,” said Natalie Portman. “Our job is to imagine what someone else’s life is like. And if you can’t do that in real life, if you can’t do that as a human being, then good luck as an actor!”5

Not all of us are capable of such positive emotions as empathy or gratitude. Research has shown that people with Asperger’s syndrome often have problems understanding the perspective of others. Reduced emphatic concern also is frequently evident in those on the autism spectrum. Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University has studied the phenomenon extensively and suggests that those with classic autism often lack both cognitive and affective empathy. Hostility can also develop through a lack of regard for another’s feelings. Perhaps, instead of resorting to anger or bullying, those suffering from a lack of empathy should be encouraged to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” and learn to relate to the challenges facing the other.

“If it is not tempered by compassion and empathy, reason can lead men and women into a moral void,” wrote that incisive thinker Karen Armstrong.6 The problem with David Cameron, the Prime Minister, is that he continues to put political tactics and terrorist threats ahead of any feeling of empathy he may have in dealing with the tragedy of millions of refugees fleeing from the brutal civil war in Syria. This attitude towards desperate asylum seekers will not serve him well. Politicians are well aware that a manifest lack of empathy is generally regarded as an antisocial form of behavior, while the unselfish, pro-social behavior of those with empathy is generally applauded.

The philosopher Iain King has been using empathy as the basis for a system of ethics.7 He reasons that empathy is the “essence” or “DNA” of right and wrong. For King, “Empathy for others really is the route to value in life.” He believes that moral motivation should stem from the basis of an empathic perspective. ”I feel your pain,” is one of the ways we express our desire to respond to another’s needs.

“Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes,” wrote the novelist Milan Kundera in his memorable novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I believe that considering matters from another’s perspective is crucial to one’s identity as a human being. Empathy’s influence extends beyond relating to another’s emotional state, it transforms us into an active mode of helping or aiding another. That must be at the core of resolving the asylum crisis now facing all of us.


1Nicholas Kristof , “Refugees who could be us,” The New York Times (International), September 7, 2015

2Roman Krznaric, Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, (2015) see: http://www.empathymuseum.com

3The Greek term was adapted in the 19th century by two Germans , Hermann Lotze and Robert Vischer, who created the Teutonic notion of “feeling into” (Einfuhlung) which was then translated by Edward Titchener into “empathy.”

4Judy Garland, quoted in Little Girl Lost by Al DiOrio (1974) p.9

5Natalie Portman, Inside the Actor’s Studio, in an interview with James Lipton, November 21, 2004.

6Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, (2010), p.52

7Iain King, Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong, (2008).

2 thoughts on “83. Arousing Empathy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s