Monday, September 21, 2020

What's Empathy?

 Empathy. Been hearing that word a lot, recently.

Most of us assume we have empathy for other people, when what we mean is sympathy.

When a friend loses her job, we feel sympathy. We understand that our friend must be in distress. And we can still express all the support and comfort needed.

The emotion becomes empathy, though, if we feel her fear and worry as our own.

Or, following an explosion, we see a woman wail over the body of her child. We’re an ocean away, watching this horrible moment on a flat screen. Most of us will feel sympathy—we understand that losing a child is a heartbreak almost without equal.

If we tear up at the sight, taking that loss to heart as if it were our own child, we are feeling empathy.

The ability to empathize can be inborn or developed, but it is never comfortable. Often when we feel the urge, we shut it down as being too demanding of our energies.

Or we try to shut it down until something happens that breaks through.

On 9/11, for example, as the second tower was hit and the full meaning of the attack became clear, people across the country suddenly choked up. And when the small dark objects began to fall from the highest floors of the burning building, we sobbed. They weren’t our children, husbands, fathers, mothers, but we were with them and their families. We felt it.


Empathy is considered a high distinguishing quality of humanity, one that warrants cultivating.

In Christianity, the great commandment reads, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” That last bit is also known as the Golden Rule. It finds its place in all the major religions.


The divisiveness of recent politics allows very little room for fellow feeling. Our social media increasingly selects only like-minded opinions to show us. It reinforces outrage.  

The clash of policy and idea in politics generates fringe elements, on the left and the right. Human nature can be contrary, and as we all know, some folks enjoy contrariness more than others.

This process isn’t new. American history is full of odd movements and noisy combative voices, going back to the beginnings of the 19th century. Hucksters sold their patent medicines or outlandish theories from the back of a Conestoga or other wagon. From there, they could do limited harm.

Today, they have the internet. They have social media.

Bizarre theories, conspiracies and outright lies go viral in a time of worldwide fear and uncertainty.

There is always someone, intent on power over others, who will speed things along, perfectly content to break every moral rule in so doing. Lies, half-lies, distortions, good intentions gone awry, spin together, pulling in the fringes, blurring everything.

Only empathy is strong enough to stop the whirlwind.

Only realism can brake the accelerating vortex.

When we’re in the grip of conspiracy-based fear, it’s like the feeling we have in a horror movie. Breaking the spell requires sunlight, open air, the presence of loved ones and friends.

These conspiracies are like bad novels, cheap slasher flicks. They rely on mass hysteria to spread.

Take them outside, away from the artificial world of computer and mobile screens. Let the warm sun and soft autumn breeze do nature’s restorative work.

The conspiracies will crumble. And the people ensnared by their darkness will breathe freely once again.


  1. Well said. I feel we will soon have that sunlight. In the meantime we have to make our own shine brighter.

  2. I only wish that people could see through the deceit. The tumult would pass all the sooner.