The Sentient Perspective: Empathy


One defining characteristic of human beings is the ability to mirror the emotions of our neighbors and sympathize with their happiness or plight. In this second post of this series, we consider how empathy shapes our mindsets, whether we are thinking about work or play.

 

Empathy is often a subconscious response, elicited from the depths of our souls at a sudden trigger, before we are even aware that it’s been called. At its most basic form, empathy is visceral, requiring no conditioning or learning. Empathy causes us to mirror the emotions and feelings of the person sitting across from us, contorting our features into identical shapes of sympathetic horror, screwing our eyes shut in simultaneous winces of pain, and tugging the corners of our mouths upward in uncontrolled grins.

However, empathy, the ability to feel the emotions of others and sympathize with their circumstances, is not limited to our interactions with other human beings. A snail crawls forward on the sidewalk, its soft body protected by a thin shell, moving nowhere fast, and you imagine that it might feel vulnerable in the gridded, structured layout of a suburb, with cars growling past on the burning asphalt. Thousands of pebbles lie scattered on the beach, worn smooth by months and years of beachside strolls, unceasing waves, and the harsh salty breeze, and you might wonder if they ever yearn for a moment of stillness. Many would dismiss the thought of rocks having feelings, but such reasoning does not prevent us from projecting our experiences upon them and imagining the world from their points of view. Arguably, empathy is the basis of our abilities to imagine the world from the perspective of both the animate and inanimate, creating new dimensions of experience and expression.

Seaweed on a rocky tidepool

The above examples point out another characteristic of empathy, that it is not restrained to split second reactions. In front of a familiar person whom you understand deeply, you can easily pull on their shoes and follow his or her train of thought in seconds. However, empathy can also be a product of weeks of thinking about lives other than our own. Mentally, we may slip out of our own bodies and into a new one—perhaps still undefined, blurry at the edges, and lacking in color. As we ruminate, considering new angles and unique influences, this new being takes on definition. At some point, our mental image of this person is painted with suitable detail to pull on his or her skin and clothes and begin to imagine what life may be from this new perspective.

Ice plants climbing down a rock face

Does a single person not experience enough anxiety and pain, excitement and happiness, for a lifetime?

Why is it imperative for human beings to be able to see what others see and feel what others feel?

One simple explanation is that mutual circumstances and emotions are often the links that draw people together, creating bonds and relationships that ward off loneliness and solitary existence. A stranger becomes a friend when you know someone in common, or work at the same place, or follow the same bus route. In these cases, you both understand something about how the other person feels in a shared circumstance, which provides a context that connects you to one another. For example, because you can imagine that it is painful to lose someone close to you to a sudden illness, even if you have been fortunate to have never experienced such a situation, you can understand that a small gesture of kindness, whether a small note or a batch of home-baked cookies, will be welcome. The care we demonstrate to others, the anxiety about their well-being, and the genuine desire to see a smile blossom across a loved one’s face all stem from knowing that if you were in his or her body, you would feel the same pain, loss, or sadness. At the same time, when your friend lands a new job or you arrive at your twenty-first birthday, you wish to share the excitement and joy. We perceive how good news makes us feel, and realize that others can be genuinely happy when we are happy, just as our own happiness derives from theirs.

 

Empathy is equally important when we have become habituated to the same, seemingly endless routine, when everything that is different is merely peripheral and each day is like yesterday on repeat. We become slightly desensitized to the world around us, slowly forgetting the textures of life, the same way you might become accustomed to the feeling of prickly wool on your skin after a few hours of wearing a knit sweater. Empathy can introduce a heady wave of emotion, reminding us that there is more to Thursday than the blur of the commute and the hands of a desk clock ticking by. Six o’clock P.M. might mean a crammed bus back home for me, but it might mean the incoming of high tide to a hermit crab, or the beginning of the forage for a moth-eating bat, or the arrival of curfew to the residents of a far-away city where the rules and customs are quite different. Where would I go and what would I do at six o’clock P.M., if I weren’t me?

Mussels clustered together on a rock

Empathy also shapes our creativity and productivity in influential ways. After all, a person can only experience a finite number of things in a day, constrained not only by time but also by the barriers to physical movement across the vast surface of the earth (financial or otherwise). The stories others tell us, the movies we watch, and the books we read, together with a productive imagination, enable us to synthesize experiences across centuries and oceans to create something unique. We are able to discern how a being might have felt in a history, location, or culture very different from our own, derived from our own pasts and the commonalities we share with others. In turn, the way we imagine their experiences shape how we observe the things around us, from the buzzing fluorescent lamp overhead to the glowing moon hovering over the horizon.

 

This concept applies especially when we desire to create an object, from a piece of furniture to a strand of poetry, for others to use and enjoy. After all, you cannot desire to design a comfortable chair if you do not wish to make others comfortable or understand the satisfaction of finding a spot to unwind. Nor can you be motivated to write a moving line of poetry or prose if you do not understand that other people feel emotions or if you cannot imagine how someone else’s experience may cause them to internalize your written message in a particular way.

 

Empathy is a critical quality for appreciating the world around us. We see an old oak tree, limbs twisted up towards the sun, and wonder at the time it has taken and the elements it had to endure to grow to its sturdy, stately magnificence. We come upon the complex, precise beams of a bridge, stretching heedlessly above the churning waves below, and realize the hours of calculations and repeated attention to detail that a large team must have endured to create a structure to take us safely from departure point to destination. Without the ability to glimpse the lives of the beings and objects around us, would we ever consider them worthy of a second glance?

Curves of boulders on the beach

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