Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.
I believe it was Aristotle that said "to perceive is to suffer."
It might not have been. Let's pretend, for now, that you can trust everything that I have to say.
The first time I heard the word "empathy," I was nine years old. That's not conjecture, that is fact. I was sitting in the living room, the carpet fibers spreading between my toes, the television raging. In my lap: a gameboy pocket. Barbecue flavored potato chips at 8 AM. Hard to be a happier nine-year-old given the circumstances.
Pokemon was on. It was fall, I think. On screen, our hero, Ash Ketchum, was battling against the Celadon City Gym Leader, Erika. Regardless of how well his Pokemon matched up against her own, Erika was dominating the match--apparently all you have to do to win a battle is train a Tangela to spin and spin and spin and pray that your opponent is a moron. I digress.
For the life of him, Ash cannot figure out why he's losing. Luckily, Erika is right there to clue him in: "...there's one thing you don't have--empathy for your Pokemon!"
In middle school, I was very active in the church, and spent every Wednesday at youth group. When I was thirteen or so, we took a spiritual gifts test that was supposed to enlighten us to our god-given strengths. Empathy happened to be one of mine.
It's a concept I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out. Initially, I thought the word made me sound intelligent, well-read. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue in conversation or the way I could drop it in the middle of a pool of friends and watch the puzzlement ripple from face to face. In college, I thought empathy was akin to listening, and listening well. To nodding along with knowing eyes and a comforting smile. I thought it was therapy conceptualized.
An adult in "the real world," I think I am finally starting to understand what empathy means, how it works, why it matters.
In his book Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman has a great line. Something along the lines of "when we focus on others, our world expands, and we increase our capacity to care." From his words, there's this great revelation that beautiful things, beautiful people, beautiful relationships do not just happen. They're created, from scratch, with effort and precision and compassion. With great and powerful understanding that nests somewhere between courage and vulnerability.
Perhaps that's where empathy lives?
I've spent the last few days paging through Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams, a collection of essays that meditate on humanity, on grace, on experience. It's been tough to digest, at times, because it highlights--with tremendous force--the lack of empathy in all of us. A window that's too quick to roll up, a coffee date cut short for better plans. I wonder: is it natural to forsake empathy? Was it always?
We move quickly. We dance wildly. We yell ferociously.
We exist in such maddening shades of unrest. Would it be such a terrible chore to brake? To breathe? To ask a question? To listen and care about the response? To invest?
James Baldwin wrote: "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read."
It doesn't take a book or a poem or an article to understand empathy.
It takes a decision.