This I Believe

Joel - Cincinnati, Ohio
Entered on January 1, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
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I believe in empathy.

I went to a lecture by psychoanalyst/historian Tom Kohut about a group of men and women who had been in the German Youth Movement in the 1920’s and still got together for conventions and meetings. They viewed the Youth Movement time as idyllic. Music and a sense of belonging suffused their memories of this time, and when the National Socialists came to power they transferred that feeling to Nazi rallies and party meetings without skipping a beat.

At the lecture, my wife and I sat next to an old friend, a Holocaust survivor who lost her family in the camps. After the war she survived an abusive marriage, a bitter divorce, and went on to become a psychiatrist and a feminist. Conversation turned to the plight of women and children in our courts and our culture. Our friend is warm, and human, and angry.

Both conversations, ultimately, were about the same thing–what John Dos Passos called the last, best hope of humanity/ that slender thread that ties one person to the pain of another: empathy. More particularly, to the consequences of the ability of people to cut off empathy to those they consider alien. In one case, it was Germans who were able to view Jews as less than beasts; in the other, it was men—abusive husbands, and sometimes police, attorneys and judges—who are unable to see women and children as anything more than chattel.

Another vivid memory comes from my oldest child’s infancy. He was in my lap watching me with his brown eyes wide open, and I was talking baby talk… As I watched, he moved his lips trying to imitate the motions of my mouth, trying to figure out what it was that I was doing that was giving him so much pleasure.

I’ve watched this in my own children and as a pediatrician for, roughly, a quarter of a century. As infants, we are hard-wired to mirror our parents and that mirroring gives parents a clue about how our babies feel and gives infants a way to learn the connections between facial expressions and feelings in our parents…before we are even aware that they are other people. Babies light up when you talk to them. Babies are more interested in the most ordinary of faces than in the brightest colored and fanciest toys. A board game with a parent trumps the most expensive electronics every time.

This connection between people is the glue for families and for societies. Empathy is the ability to feel and understand the emotions of another person. It’s different than sympathy or pity or compassion: those are feeling “for” another person’s pain or misfortune. And feeling “for” someone means that there’s a distance between the two of you, that you’re in some way better off or superior or just luckier that the pain isn’t happening to you. Empathy is feeling with… It is what makes us, each and every one of us, human.