Yesterday I touched very briefly on the matter of empathy and I would like to take a short walk with you down that road to discover the influence this fundamental human capacity has on your life and the world at large.
Recent discoveries in the fields of neuropsychology, brain science and childhood development show that we are soft-wired with what are called mirror neurons. These special neurons allow us to experience the plight, joy, frenzy, fear or delight of others as if those experiences were our own.
There is growing scientific evidence and understanding of this mechanism and we are beginning to understand that a statement like “I feel your pain” is much more than just a kind gesture. It is a statement of fact. You really can perceive and feel what others are feeling and experiencing as if their experience was your own.
Author and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin gave an interesting talk called “Empathetic Civilisation.” This RSA Animate presentation describes Rifkin’s interpretation of this growing body of research in a fascinating format and his conclusions are debatable yet intriguing. What does our future hold?
One of the most fundamental motivations driving virtually all human beings is the longing to belong. Man is a gregarious creature. I remember speaking a number of years ago with a fellow about my age who had embraced the “punk” movement. He prided himself on the idea of expressing his individuality, of being different and of testing the boundaries of societal norms.
I saw him later that week with his friends and I had to chuckle to myself as I had a hard time distinguishing him in all of his uniqueness from his friends in all of theirs! While the mohawks from one person to the next were a bit different, they loved the same music, held the same social views, disdained the same norms, etc. In short, they found others with whom they could belong comfortably.
Empathy is the quality that facilitates belonging. It is, as Rifkin notes, the force that permits civilization. As selfhood increases, so too does empathic development. We all share various levels and depths of relatedness to one another, but today I would like to ask if you feel you are using that powerful mechanism wisely.
Some people are afraid of their capacity to “feel” others and do their level best to shut it off. Others fail to differentiate between the feelings of others and their own feelings. They have a permanent seat on the emotional roller-coaster and like babies in a nursery compelled neurologically to cry when they her another baby cry, they have no idea why they are feeling what they are feeling!
You can and should feel empathetically those around you but you are wise to develop the ability to handle those feelings maturely and with equanimity. Empathy provides you with the vision to work effectively with others. It ensures that you won’t deal with others like a bull in a china shop and like a flashlight it allows you to navigate the often dark and tortuous pathways of human consciousness.
Where do you start? First, by taking a moment before you react to what your feeling. Give you brain a second to catch up. Ask yourself, is this my experience or that of another? If it is not yours, be very careful about giving it too much weight in your heart and mind, instead, look to offer what is called in homeopathy, the “sarcode” (the imprint of healthy tissue), in relation to that feeling. Put simply, ask yourself “how can I most creatively handle this feeling at this time?”
The trouble comes when you don’t stop to think, when you react rather than acting proactively. You almost always have more time to strategize than you think. Resist the temptation to “rush in where angels fear to tread.”
We are feeling creatures. Feeling is vitally important. It is what connects us invisibly and what moves us deeply. Realizing that we are soft-wired to experience one another’s feelings, it behooves us to use this capacity wisely, carefully and for the betterment of humanity.