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by Richard Nilsen

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There is hardly a buzzword more ubiquitous these days among thinking people than “empathy.” From Oprah to Dr. Phil, it is the panacea for the world’s psychological ills and the quality that the bad portions of existence most lack.
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The problem for us is that any time a word becomes so widely used, it surrenders its meaning and becomes a hollow ringing in our ears. Just take those other frequent labels, “conservative” and “liberal.” Those who label themselves conservative have little in common with the conservatism of Edmund Burke — in fact, their small-government position is classically  labeled “liberal.” And in reaction, “liberal” has just been a pejorative tossed around aimlessly, forcing those on that side of the aisle to find a new word — “progressive” — to wear as a badge. “Liberal” may nowadays satisfactorily be defined as “Nyah-nyah.”
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And so with “empathy.” It is one of those words that is understood differently by each, meaning that we all agree it is a good thing, without ever agreeing on what it is. It is a “safe” word to rally behind.
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Empathy is whatever we mean by it. Perhaps it is best understood as an umbrella term, covering many virtues and many sins. Sometimes we use the word when we really mean “sympathy,” or “pity” or “compassion.” Or just the willingness to listen.
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While strictly speaking, to empathize means to share the feelings of someone else, it is more commonly used in a more metaphorical sense: to share the beliefs, ideas and prejudices of some other person or group. In that way, I can “empathize” with the plight of American Muslims or the LGBTQ community.
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In this version, it has been defined as: “being aware of and understanding another person’s feelings or other inner states.” This isn’t truly empathy, however valuable and virtuous it be. We can “know” another’s situation without taking on its burdens as our own. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is a good thing, but it isn’t quite the same thing as “empathy.”
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Empathy is actually feeling the pain, emotions or suffering of others, as if they were our own. A classical example is watching a child fall off a bicycle and skin her knee and feeling an electrical pang in our own knee, and perhaps rubbing our own knee while we wince.
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That is a kind of autonomic empathy, a muscle empathy. We might also feel that watching ballet and feeling the torsioned muscled of the dancers in our own legs. I know that I have at times needed something like liniment the day after attending the dance.
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There is a second version of empathy that we get from seeing the emotions of others, like sympathetic vibrations in a violin string. It may be from seeing the weeping students on TV after yet another school shooting, and we weep too. Or from seeing a drama and feeling the fellow suffering of the protagonist.
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But there is also a kind of intellectual empathy, which is coming to understand the suffering and its cause. We imagine what it must be like. I liken this to the distinction Samuel Coleridge makes between primary and secondary imaginations. The primary is spontaneous, isn’t even thought of as an imagination, but simply as perception. We use that imagination when we see a tree rather than branches and leaves: In other words we gestalt the danged thing.
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The secondary imagination, he says, is like the primary, except that it is voluntary. We do it on purpose — “an echo of the of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation,” as Coleridge puts it.
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It is what we do when we make metaphor: find the unseen correspondences, hidden similitudes. And in empathy, it is when we parse out the cause and effect of the emotions of others to come to understand them.
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There is another distinction to be made between emotional empathy and this intellectualized version, which is that knowing what someone else is thinking or feeling may be used by the unscrupulous to gain advantage. The psychopath — a Ted Bundy, for instance — is often a good reader of someone else’s thoughts or feelings, but he doesn’t share those feelings. For this reason, some may disallow this version as actual empathy.
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We can spot those who lack empathy by several warning signs: 1) Frequency of finding oneself in prolonged arguments; 2) Forming opinions early and
defending them vigorously; 3) Thinking that other people are overly sensitive; 4) Refusing to listen to other points of view; 5) Blaming others for mistakes; 6) Not listening when spoken to; 7) Holding grudges and having difficulty forgiving; 8) Inability to work in a team.
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Does this sound like anyone we know?
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We tend to think of empathy in individual cases. To paraphrase: When one person suffers, it is a tragedy; when thousands suffer, it is a statistic. And so, in art, we tend to think of Oedipus or Willy Loman and empathize with their fates. And so much art has been about the suffering of the artist.
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But there is a classical form of empathy, too: the empathy of the human condition. We can feel for the pain of all life. Schubert’s String Quintet fills us with emotion for his suffering; Haydn’s Seven Last Words for the suffering that humankind is born into. It is empathy at a remove: felt, but also understood.
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In my experience, there are two things that foster empathy: One is age and experience. The older I get, the more I find myself feeling the pain of others and wanting to ameliorate that suffering. This is not simply a moral outrage at injustice, but rather a fellow-feeling that comes over me, now that I am in my seventh decade of drawing breath.
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(It has been suggested that the mechanism for this is either the existence of grandchildren and the thought of life heading into an uncertain future; or it is the loss of testosterone in senescence.)
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The other seed of empathy is art. When we give ourselves over to a novel, or a play or to music, we are given a direct pipeline to that which is not ourselves, or which is ourselves but we haven’t previously had access to that part.
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As author Neil Gaiman says, “A book is a little empathy machine. It puts you inside somebody else’s head. You see out of the world through somebody else’s eyes. It’s very hard to hate people of a certain kind when you’ve just read a book by one of those people.”
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Percy Shelley took this ability of art to put us in someone else’s existence as the root source of human morality. It is the core message of his Defence of Poetry.
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“The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.”
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It is the imagination, he says, that is “the great instrument of moral good.”
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Poetry (and by this he means all art) “strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.”
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He argues that art is not moral because it is didactic. It does not give us rules to live by, but rather opens our experience to the wider world and reenforces our connection — our “oneness” — with it.
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Joseph Campbell notes something of the same when he quotes the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “How is it that a human being can so participate in the peril or pain of another that without thought, spontaneously, he sacrifices his own life to the other? How can it happen that what we normally think of as the first law of nature and self-preservation is suddenly dissolved?”
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Schopenhauer answers his own question: “Psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization, which is that you and that other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life, and that your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time. Our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life. This is a metaphysical truth which may become spontaneously realized under circumstances of crisis.”
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It is something that can also be realized, sometimes even unconsciously, while reading a book, watching a dance, seeing Michelangelo’sPieta or Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion or Goya’s Third of May, 1808 or Picasso’s Guernica. Listening to Bach’s Matthew Passion or Brahms’ German Requiem.
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Each of us is an island, and we will never know the world if we don’t occasionally get off our tiny spot in the vast ocean. Read more. See more. Feel more.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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