Serious people try to understand where “evolution” is taking us — I don’t mean the folks who predict giant thumbs in order to text or those still hooked on the notion that being bigger and stronger is the same as winning which is the same as persisting -- which is what evolution is really about. Looking back to the time when the first hominins began to survive in Africa and then fan out across the other continents and eventually to the moon — where no human can survive without massive technology.— the most powerful characteristic seems to be empathy, the ability to understand others.
Using what are called “mirror cells” and more obviously eyes and ears, most of us can look at another person and “feel what they feel.” Not thinking. Not figuring out, but direct participation through a kind of physiological echo. This is why we watch movies, to feel the echo of the drama in our own muscles and fluids.
There’s a lot of concern about empathizing with others accurately and intensely because it ought to motivate improvements in the world for everyone. To look at a photo of a suffering child and feel what they feel is to want to comfort that child and, hopefully, want to prevent suffering in all children. But some people don’t feel empathy. We call them sociopaths if they take advantage of not-feeling. Maybe Asperger or autistic or psychotic if the problem is in damage or lack to the body.
The closer one is to being like the person we observe, the more accurately we can feel what they feel. The more one must use imagination or other people’s accounts, the less accurate the empathy can be. It is possible to block empathy from others or control it, but one risks making the empathizer angry at the deception, the hiding, even if it is meant to help them or please them.
Trust, love, generosity, and the more rational forms of understanding all connect to empathy. We don’t think much about empathy for evil. It’s possible, but evil is understood in most of our cultures as a form of power and one must be well-anchored in oneself before allowing direct shared feeling with a malevolent person. It’s a daredevil occupation undertaken by some investigators. We feel that empathy like that would capture us. (Shake hands with the Devil, and he will drag you into Hell.) Because evil is forbidden, it is seductive, and once felt — we imagine — it would be addictive, a drug.
It’s rather assumed that bad people are not capable of empathy, that perhaps their hunger for more evidence/contact is a source of their badness because it lets them control and tempt the innocent. Innocence is sort of defined as having the capacity for empathy but not much experience that would allow understanding the necessity of shielding. Should children empathize with their abusers? Does anyone really want to feel what Hannibal Lector feels?
Also, we assume that empathy is good for the person being “felt with” but there hasn’t been much investigation. The “insight therapy” investigators, psychoanalysts, assume that to be truly understood by someone else is a healing experience that will release pain and obsession. Is that true? Would it feel good or just strange? I suppose one could tell by observing the person experiencing the release, which would be an empathy but also possibly an invasion of privacy.
To love someone is often to want to know all about them in an obsessive way that leads to stalking, interference with their other relationships, and even a desire to capture, to demand reciprocity of feeling — none of which are at all empathetic but all of which are very common in a culture where celebrity is based on projecting an invented identity. To hunger to know everything is a distortion of ownership, understandable in a culture based on owning.
To be truly understood is possible — I guess — and people say they long for it, but what does it feel like? Is it like turning on the lights? Is it like experiencing a powerful artistic event? Does it feel like being at home the way we were as a lucky child whom nurturing parents could read? Is it like a submerging and reassuring reality dream? Or is it like flying, as though the burden of gravity were lifted away?
Most of the thought about empathy kind of leaks over to talking about intimacy or love; it tends to be about bonding by people in the same predicament, the same culture, which is a happy thing to do, but not the deep understanding that some crave, the sub-strata of identity. George Lakoff's theory gives us a vocabulary for the metaphors that structure our consciousness, the “framing” of the sensory information that the body takes in and uses to make sense of the world. Not theoretically but physically.
Getting to that level with another person is not empathy, but the result of sustained empathy, a kind of shared map based on knowledge acquired over a period of time. I would like to believe in the flash of recognition when one really “sees” another person. But that may just be a fantasy. So empathy is not the end point. Rather it is a means to getting to deep and healing bonding sustained by understanding. Some call that love. I do.
As I go through these paper remnants of my life in boxes, there have been three bits that struck me because I didn't grasp them at the time. One was how often my mother said that she had a secret life that no one knew about and that she didn’t care to have exposed. I think it is the result of seeming to be compliant and cheerful when she really wasn’t. The second was goodbye notes from parishioners who mentioned how my use of metaphors help them see what they had not understood earlier. (You could call it “re-framing.”) And the third was a letter from a student who said at first he thought I was just not taking hold, but finally realized that I saw through all the bullshit, the same as he did. He was empathizing with memory, rerunning the “tapes”. (And he was right.)
Often we can’t grasp the content of what people say, but empathy gives us access to the feelings of others. I have to say that the present presidential candidates are so masked, so guarded, and so — well — foreign, that empathy is off the table. Who are these robots? Who can really care about them? This is NOT evolution, but what evolution will discard. It cannot persist.