I believe in the power of empathy, the notion that it’s reasonable to identify with and understand other people’s emotions and experiences. I’d like to think that I came to appreciate the power of empathy through some great history lesson, a profound literary passage, or from a classic poem, but it was the result of a television show. I learned about empathy when I was seven years old, watching an episode of the original Star Trek series. The episode titled “The Empath” included a character who identified so deeply with others who were suffering that it finally killed her. I remember it struck a chord since I inhabited a world where empathy often took center stage in my relationships, whether they involved family and friends, or imagining little Jackie Paper losing his friend, Puff the Magic Dragon. These feelings seemed to fade during my teenage years, a period when cruelty appears too natural, only to return in adulthood. Unlike the Star Trek character, I doubt my empathy will kill me. Nevertheless, watching movies, reading books, or listening as people describe their lives sparks this vicarious emotion in me. Not only the emotion but also the idea of empathy has shaped my life. I often wonder what a little dose of empathy might do to others. Could it prevent violence and destructive behavior as people came to better understand the thoughts and experiences of others, or would too much empathy result in a society unable to handle the type of constructive conflict that often leads to practical solutions? How could I raise my children if my empathy switch was always on? It would be hard to discipline them; I’d likely experience their emotional pain and be unable to act as consistent as the experts say I should.
I believe we cannot appreciate others until we understand which ideas are most important to them. Perhaps I can call this an “empathy for ideas.” Some of the ideas that ignite my empathy are seen as positive by those who support them: free trade, immigration reform, no child left behind, the saving power of grace, it takes a village, protecting the environment. But they can also lead to disagreement and even pain as they clash with a group’s fundamental values, or with a person’s current situation. How far can I appreciate or support free trade, even though the experts may tell me it’s good for our economy, when my neighbor’s job has been outsourced? Can I give her comfort with an idea? Can my empathy for an idea override my hope to console another?
I believe that a little bit more empathy would go a long way toward improving society, but too much might be disastrous. Nevertheless, my belief in the power of empathy convinces me that spreading some more around is not a bad idea.
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