Empathy is the capacity, ability, and willingness to understand or share the feelings of someone else. It is to harmonize with that person (or animal, or even fictional character…) and synchronize with their mood — to walk a mile in their shoes.
The word empathy comes from a Greek word meaning “suffering,” which describes the ethos of the term in its encapsulation of feeling what another being feels.
Compassion is a behavior made possible by empathy, and is revered throughout culture and the world’s religions. It is considered one of the hallmarks of advanced emotional development, representing selflessness, altruism, and Good Samaritanism. It is to make less distinct, the separation between self and other.
Blessed are the meek
Empaths are some of society’s greatest healers, caregivers, teachers, artists, performers, and leaders. They find unique and often enduring ways to add value in places often left behind by the brutalism of American hypercapitalism.
People with empathy help uplift humanity, and inspire us to do our utmost to care for each other as best we can. Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something, said a wise man some decades past.
Conversely, individuals who are lacking in empathy can commit some of the most heinous crimes and greatest atrocities in history. People without empathy lack a conscience, which makes them more willing than most to go too far, take things to extremes, and play impulse high-stakes gambling without a net. Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, and others chronicled the psychology of the Nazis during its regime and World War II, as well as in its aftermath — they classified the behavior as pathological, from malignant narcissism to even deeper evils within the Cluster B family of personality disorders.
Empathy in biology
Human beings aren’t the only species with the capacity for empathy. In fact many if not most mammalian species exhibit empathic nurturing behavior, from rodents to primates and cetaceans. Cognitively, the brain system for empathy includes spindle cells, the amygdala, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and brain stem.
Prosocial behaviors thus appear to be an advanced adaptation, to be willing to risk potential sacrifice for other people, including strangers. Perhaps the dividend in profits from the returns of this kind of routine yet extraordinary behavior are the true wealth of the nation.