Empathy: The Ability that Makes Us Truly Human
Empathy leads to healing and resolution, in place of conflict.
Posted Mar 24, 2012
In the UK, there has been a lot of publicity lately for the idea of ‘restorative justice.' As part of this process, offenders are brought face to face with the victims of their crimes, to hear how they have suffered as a result of them. The aim of restorative justice is healing, both for victim and offender. The victim transcends their rage with some understanding and forgiveness towards the offender, and the offender empathises with the victim, becoming aware of the real meaning of their crimes. This process changes lives. Victims feel free of the weight of hatred and are able to move on; offenders have a wider sense of perspective, and are less likely to re-offend. Sometimes offenders don't meet their specific victims, but just the victims of similar crimes. But this still leads to a new awareness, and new patterns of behavior.
For me, this highlights the enormous significance of empathy. To a large extent, all human brutality - all oppression, cruelty and most crime - is the result of a lack of empathy. It's a lack of empathy which makes someone capable of attacking, robbing, raping or oppressing another human being. It's a lack of empathy for another tribe or country which makes warfare and conflict possible. It's a lack of empathy towards other ethnic groups, social classes or castes which makes oppression and inequality possible.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to ‘feel with' another person, to identity with them and sense what they're experiencing. It's sometimes seen as the ability to ‘read' other people's emotions, or the ability to imagine what they're feeling, by ‘putting yourself in their shoes.' In other words, empathy is seen as a cognitive ability, along the same lines as the ability to imagine future scenarios or to solve problems based on previous experience. But in my view, empathy is more than this. It's the ability to make a psychic and emotional connection with another person, to actually enter into their mind-space. When we experience real empathy or compassion, in a sense our identity actually merges with another person's. Your ‘self-boundary' melts away; the separateness between you and the other person fades.
Our strongly developed sense of individuality - or being a personal self, or ego - can make it difficult for us to experience this state of connection. The ego ‘walls us off' from other people, particularly those belonging to other groups - the other gender (in the case of female oppression), other tribes, nations, races or classes. It encloses us in a narrow world of our own thoughts and desires, making us so self-absorbed that it's difficult for us to experience the world from other people's perspective. Other people become truly ‘other' to us. And this makes it possible for us to inflict suffering on them, simply because we can't sense the pain we're causing them. We can't feel with them enough to sense their suffering.
On the other hand, if you identify with another person, if you have a psychic and emotional connection with them, then it's impossible to treat them brutally. You recoil from their experience of suffering in the same way that you recoil from your own suffering. In fact, you feel a strong desire to relieve their suffering and aid their development. But if you can't identify with them, then there's no limit to the amount of suffering you can inflict. You can't sense their pain, so there's nothing to stop you causing it.
As Restorative Justice shows, to some degree empathy can be learned. When people are brought together in a neutral context, with an open, trusting attitude, empathy naturally establishes itself. Distinctions of ethnicity, religion and other superficial ‘identity badges' begin to fade away, as does the sense of grievance and rage derived from past events.
Just as the lack of empathy makes cruelty and oppression possible, the presence of empathy heals conflict. The ability to empathise makes us truly human, and the wider it stretches - from victims to offenders, from one ethnic group to another, from nation to nation and religion to religion - the less brutal and more harmonious a place the world will become.
Steve Taylor is a psychology lecturer and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality, including The Fall, and Waking From Sleep. Eckhart Tolle has described his work as 'an important contribution to the global shift in consciousness happening at the present time.' His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com. His upcoming book is Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of our Minds.