What is Empathy?

In the mariner’s last post, “The Greatest Sin is Prejudice,” it was suggested that the real measure of successful evolution was not intellectual prowess but empathy. The post prompted notable interest in the midst of confusion about the differences between sympathy, pathos, compassion, empathy, etc. It is important to understand empathy as a unique experience because the post suggests that empathy is a positive phenomenon capable of shaping evolution.

This post will focus on words that often are mistaken for empathy and a focused note about empathy as an evolutionary influence.

Aware – On the scale of emotional interaction, being aware of human behavior in others is more a result of the five senses behaving normally. At best, ‘sensitive’ may mean the same. For example, ‘I am aware that you are a democrat. Being aware of that opinion helps me adjust my sociability when interacting with you.’

Pathos – Often used to express ‘sympathy,’ it is not the same. Pathos is an intense response to a situation usually intensified by art or other imagery.

Pity – While pathos can be an intense response, it lacks personal engagement. Pity, on the other hand, suggests that you are aware that the person(s) do not deserve their difficulty; you have a perspective about the circumstances in which they find themselves but rarely stop to involve yourself in easing their plight unless they already have a bonded relationship with you.

Passion – The key to recognizing passion is that you are at the center of the emotion. Passion is a self-serving response which drives your focus to accomplish something that has captured your emotions. Examples are infatuation, personality tendencies, response to a perceived threat, perseverance to modify an important social situation, etc.

Sympathy – Surprisingly, rather than being focused primarily on one person, sympathy is an allegiance to a group ethic or morality. Sympathy means your reality is intertwined with values and experiences of others. Sympathy is the feeling that binds you to what is important to others – enabling you to experience the ebb and flow of group or individual values. Often used erroneously in place of pity, a closer synonym would be ‘loyalty.’

Compassion – A common expression among married couples of long standing is “Passion turns into compassion.” The meaning of the phrase represents the replacement of personal passion with a commitment to the wellbeing of the spouse, that is, your personal emotions become integrated with your spouse’s emotions such that neither stands alone. This same allegiance, when applied to social situations, means you and others experiencing that situation are bound to support the well being of others involved, engaging physically in real time response to achieve solutions. A popular distinction in literature follows the theme, “A warrior has passion; a hero has compassion.”

Empathy – Empathy obviously is derived from the same Greek root as pathos. Empathy carries the same intensity as pathos but has an added dimension: empathy also means the ability to infuse one’s understanding of another’s inner feelings so amazingly that it seems as if you could become that being. One becomes so obsessed with the other being’s gestalt that the two beings appear twin-like in behavior, motivation and awareness. This does not suggest magic or weird music; rather, you become so aware of the internal feelings and values of the other person that you can fully represent their gestalt.

A simplified example of not exercising empathy by choice is common among dog owners. Animal psychologists have determined the following:[1]

Dogs do not like to be hugged. They feel trapped and unable to escape if necessary.

Dogs are born to run. They are hunters very much like their wolf ancestors – even if it is a Shih Tzu. Life in a pocketbook or at the end of a chain or locked up in a house all day must be hard.

A great experiment (and something that will probably have your dog sighing with relief) is to try to spend a whole day not saying a word to your dog, but communicating only with your body. You’ll realize just how much you “talk” with your body without realizing it.

Most humans think that dogs like being patted on the head. The reality is that while many dogs will put up with this if it’s someone they know and trust, most dogs don’t enjoy it. You may notice that even the loving family dog might lean away slightly when you reach for her face to pet her. She’ll let you because you’re the boss, but she doesn’t like it.

Fortunately, over thousands of years of breeding, we have made dogs more empathetic than we are.

The future for the current environment and all its inhabitants is not bright. Homo sapiens has overrun the planet in a savage way and every day is driving species of every kind into extinction. Already humans consume more than the Earth can provide each year; the oceans show rates of depletion that suggest the oceans will be fished out by the end of this century. The Earth itself is slowly shifting to a warmer environment that in time will stress all living creatures.

The philosophical question is, how will whatever is still alive continue to exist? Futurists are suggesting competition between species and between ourselves will only hasten extinction. The opposite of conflict is empathy – living in close harmony with the best interest of any living thing as closely managed as we can. That may grant our biosphere a few more centuries.

Empathy is a parallel behavior to what religions have been espousing for 8,000 years: love and giving is the true key to survival. There will be no room for expensive idiosyncrasies, greed, or waste. Love and giving, i.e., empathy may be our best chance to evolve properly for the end of our age.

Ancient Mariner

[1] From Jaymi Heimbuck, http://www.mnn.com/family/pets/stories/11-things-humans-do-that-dogs-hate

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