Universal empathy

 

Our seven-year-old granddaughter Katherine broke her arm last month. She was playing on a swing. Ever since she first learned how to pump a swing to go higher and higher, she has enjoyed letting go, sailing through the air, momentarily weightless, like an astronaut in outer space…

Until she lands, with a thump.

Most kids have done the same.

This time, we assume, she didn’t land right. She broke both bones in her left forearm, just above the wrist.

At the hospital’s emergency ward, Katherine was very brave. “I’m not going to cry, Mummy,” she declared.

She was right. She didn’t.

Her mummy did.

When I tell that story (hey, I’m a doting grandfather; I can’t help talking about my grandchildren) I find that quite a few other mothers also suddenly develop watery eyes.

It’s an interesting reaction, from people who have no personal connection to Katherine. It tends to confirm recent findings of neurologists that our brains are hard-wired for empathy.

Using brain scans, neurologists can see different parts of our brains “light up” when we experience pain, joy, fear, disgust, etc. Significantly, the same parts of our brains seem to light up when we observe someone else undergoing those experiences.

My mother had a multitude of sayings. They included “Laugh and the world laughs with you,” and “Misery loves company.”

Science seems to validate those fragments of folk wisdom. Laughter, misery, pain, terror – strong emotions tend to be contagious. We rejoice at weddings, even if our own marriage is rocky. We grieve at funerals, even if we had only a passing acquaintance with the dead person.

We don’t just feel sorry, abstractly, from a safe and disinterested distance, when someone is in distress. Rather, the other way around. We feel sorry because, in some inexplicable way, we share their distress.

And the closer our bond, the more deeply we share that other person’s experience.

Unless, of course, we deliberately turn off our empathy and become ruthless machines that take pleasure in another’s suffering. Perhaps that’s what happened to the Nazi guards at Auschwitz or Treblinka.

Either way, we cannot remain uninvolved.

As part of a worship service a few years ago, our minister asked us to write down our own definitions of God, in no more than ten words. She got a lot of predictable answers, using the kind of abstract terms favoured by hymnwriters a century ago – almighty, immortal, creator…

But also some descriptions that came out of left field.

Mine, I recall, said, “Universal empathy.”

At the time, it was a purely intuitive response. Increasingly, I think I touched on a possible truth.

As an individual, I cannot feel empathy for every other person, let alone for every sparrow that falls. But if some kind of transcendent presence exists, I can’t think of a finer attribute than being able to share the emotions of everyone and everything, regardless of race, gender, or even species.

Seeing her mother cry didn’t heal Katherine’s broken arm. But she knew she wasn’t facing her pain alone.

 

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments; rewrite@shaw.ca.