Empathy is what we hope we always give to people we love, what we always hope for from those closest to us. Sharing another person’s pain, fear, sorrow, weakness is the kindest thing we can do for them. It’s not always easy to empathize, even with those we’re closest to, especially about things we ourselves have never experienced. Empathy is an essential element of kindness, its absence feels like indifference, abandonment, even if the lapse in empathy is purely unintentional and leaves us aghast when it is revealed to us.
Some people are simply dicks, we can stipulate to that. This type is too immature and selfish to think of anything but their own needs. This tendency is exacerbated by the extreme nature of the on-demand winner-take-all society we live in. In our individualistic, competitive culture it’s easy to get sucked into the prevailing mentality that it’s no vice to step over somebody weaker and do a crowing victory dance next to their fallen body. We are unconsciously conditioned to view the world in a crudely Darwinian way. That said, most of us are empathetic, whenever our hearts are touched.
There are rare types on either end of the empathy scale. Finely tuned empathetic souls who are always concerned for the feelings of others, of every stranger they encounter, about the fate of others they will never meet, the well-being of the planet itself. On the other end of the spectrum is the clinical diagnosis for evil: the malignant narcissist, incapable of empathy under any circumstance. The rest of us are in between, our own empathetic abilities varying according to circumstance.
I give two illustrations of things I will always remember, pictures from both sides of the empathy scale.
Years ago I went to the lake with three friends.
It was a warm spring day, but not hot. Audrey and Alain went into the lake, up to their necks, and began cooing about how perfect the water was. They soon starting urging me to come in. I was quite comfortable on a cool rock and the idea of being wet didn’t appeal to me. It wasn’t that hot out and my clothes would probably stay wet and become increasingly chilly for the rest of the day is what I was thinking.
They called me from the water, laughing and smiling. “It’s fantastic!” Alain called. “You have to come in, you won’t regret it!” said Audrey. They were both smiling from ear to ear as they eventually came out of the water towards me.
In my experience this was their chance to drip cold water over me, to hug me wetly, to behave like happy, dumb, obnoxious kids do. To my surprise they did none of these things. They spoke to me quietly, cheerfully, telling me to trust them, urging me on as they gently took me by my arms and helped me reluctantly to my feet. There was no pushing or pulling, no coercion, just their reassuring touches and gentle slowness, letting me decide if I wanted to join them, doing their best to make my decision easier for me. I stood and took a few steps toward the water.
It is perhaps thirty years ago, and I remember my feelings in this moment more clearly, more fondly, than almost any in my life. It was the feeling of being loved, taken care of, supported, listened to, respected. I felt like I was in the nurturing hands of my ideal parents, two gentle souls who truly wanted the best for me. I felt protected, certain that they had my best interests at heart and only those interests.
Step by step we walked into the water, which felt cold when I put my first foot in it, but which they assured me was perfect once I went in. They were right, it was fantastic, perfect, delightful. I’d worry about being wet later. I certainly wasn’t worried about anything as we splashed and swam happily. Gayle was not coming in under any circumstances and none of us tried to convince her to come in once she made that clear.
I think of those moments as one the greatest demonstrations of empathy I can call to mind. So simple, so trivial, but their kindness touched me so deeply and the swim was so well worth it. The odd thing is that Audrey and Alain had never met before that day, yet they worked in perfect, loving coordination. As far as I recall they never met after that day either. For one moment in time the stars were aligned perfectly and I was given this beautiful gift: to feel in this random moment, as an adult, the beauty of a perfect childhood memory.
I was going to contrast this with another image, but, on second thought, it’s much better to leave off with that transcendent image of empathy. It is easy enough for anyone to imagine the opposite of being treated with this much consideration.