“It is easy to love people in memory; the hard thing is to love them when they are there in front of you.”
— John Updike, My Father’s Tears and Other Stories
The world is passing through a time of profound change. We are the wealthiest, healthiest, best-educated generation in the history of human civilisation. Yet ours is the most fractured society. The healing balm that we need can come only from empathy. Empathy is the attribute most needed and valued in the new world and will continue to remain so. It’s also a key currency in a world defined by connectivity and change.
Empathy is the ability to understand what others think and feel, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with appropriate emotions. Individuals who feel empathy experience greater happiness and make friends more easily. These benefits ripple outwards — children of empathic parents are better able to manage their emotions, employees of empathic managers are contented and committed employees, patients of empathic doctors are more satisfied with their care. Empathy strengthens our social fabric. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects.
The word “empathy” — a rendering of the German einfuhlung — “feeling into” — is only a century old, but people have been interested for a long time in the moral implications of feeling their way into the lives of others. Empathy is foundational to social and relational intelligence. It is naturally hardwired into our brain and when harnessed, plays a crucial role in solving social problems.
Empathy is an offering of respect, listening to and standing in the shoes of another, seeing the world through the eyes of those who are different from us. When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your circle of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are distant strangers or close friends — it becomes harder not to help, harder not to act.
The ability to connect empathically with others — to feel with them, to care about their well-being, and to act with compassion — is critical to our lives, helping us to get along and thrive as a society. Many confuse empathy (feeling with someone) with sympathy (feeling sorry for someone), which means to look at their suffering from the outside and feel pity for them. Empathy involves an ability to perceive others’ feelings (and to recognise our own emotions), to imagine why someone might be feeling a certain way, and to have concern for their welfare. Once empathy is activated, compassionate action is the most logical response.
The empathy that society needs is not a form that comes from superiority, but one that is born from a profound humility. The most successful leaders are those who recognise this truth and invoke it in the mission they shepherd. When we recognise all as equal partners, we have a real chance of making it to the goalpost. Feeling empathetic helps us make connections with others and understand them better. Empathy is a precursor to compassion, which is empathy in action — an inner motivation that moves people to respond and express the urge to care about another person’s welfare. Empathy doesn’t just mean treating others better — it means doing better.
Empathy is critical to our interpersonal and societal roles, enabling sharing of needs and desires, experiences between individuals and providing an emotional bridge that promotes positive social behaviour. It is like a muscle which we can build or leave to atrophy. All parties are equally enriched when we perceive and respond to each other with empathy and compassion. After all, it’s the human bond that adds the music to life.