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Empathy and life

Updated on October 2, 2012
The world is so interconnected now that really, our planet is one big neighborhood. Lets get to know our neighbors.
The world is so interconnected now that really, our planet is one big neighborhood. Lets get to know our neighbors.

Empathy and responsibility

“We do not need magic to change the world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” - J. K. Rowling

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. ~John Muir, US naturalist and author.

Some years ago I had a salutary lesson in the responsibility we all have towards each other. I love playing music loudly on my hifi and one piece that I particularly love to listen to in “very loud” mode is the Richard Strauss tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, especially the Introduction. (For anyone who might be interested my favourite recording of this is the Lorin Maazel with the Wiener Philharmoniker on DG from 1983).

One Sunday morning I was listening at high volume to this piece. I thought we were far enough away from any neighbours for them not to be disturbed by the music. However, after a little while there was a knock on the door and two children told me their mother asked if I could please turn the music softer.

Somehow it doesn't matter that we think what we do has no repercussions. A learning for me is that everything we do, small or large, short term or long term, has repercussions, very often ones that we cannot even begin to imagine.

And this is where responsibility comes in. However much I might enjoy something, however much I might think I have a right to it, my enjoyment and my right are limited by my responsibility to my fellows, and, even more, to every living thing on this beautiful planet which we share.

Every decision I make I need to make with the awareness of the impact it might have on others and on the biosphere, because the kind of soap I use, the make of car I buy, the label of the wine that I enjoy with my meal (and, indeed, the nature of the meal itself), all of these have effects, they have consequences.

The plastic bag carelessly thrown out of a car window could very easily end up choking a turtle, which might have mistaken it for a jellyfish, to an agonising death.

Even more, the words I use in communication with others, my attitude to others, to the world around me, these are vital components of making a better world.

Auguries of Innocence

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.


A robin redbreast in a cage

Puts all heaven in a rage.


A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons

Shudders hell thro' all its regions.



Every night and every morn

Some to misery are born,

Every morn and every night

Some are born to sweet delight.


Some are born to sweet delight,

Some are born to endless night.


We are led to believe a lie

When we see not thro' the eye,

Which was born in a night to perish in a night,

When the soul slept in beams of light.


God appears, and God is light,

To those poor souls who dwell in night;

But does a human form display

To those who dwell in realms of day.

  • William Blake

Dependent on each other in so complex a manner

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.” – Pascal.

"Since all creation is a whole, separateness is an illusion. Like it or not, we are team players. Power comes through cooperation, independence through service, and a greater self through selflessness." - from The Tao of Leadership by John Heider (Bantam, 1986)

Are these truisms that most or all people accept? I'm not sure, and I want to examine some things about empathy and responsibility that might help us understand and do something with that understanding.

In the final paragraph of his great work, On the Origin of Species , Charles Darwin wrote in 1859: “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner , have all been produced by laws acting around us.” (my italics)

Author and economist Jeremy Rifkin states a similar idea in a Huffington Post article (January 2010): “The biosphere is the narrow band that extends some forty miles from the ocean floor to outer space where living creatures and the Earth's geochemical processes interact to sustain each other. We are learning that the biosphere functions like an indivisible organism. It is the continuous symbiotic relationships between every living creature and between living creatures and the geochemical processes that ensure the survival of the planetary organism and the individual species that live within its biospheric envelope. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism .” (my italics)

To be human is to be mortal, a factor we share with all living organisms. Empathy is the ability to recognise that mortality and its consequences in ourselves and in every other living organism. Every living thing, from the tiniest single-cell organism to the (we like to think) most highly developed animal, humans, has a finite life-span. No amount of rejuvenating creams, anti-oxidants or any other nostrum is going to change that fact. We are all born to die. No question.

What is important is how we use the time between birth and death. Do we spend that time in bitter railing against the inevitability of death, or in apathetic ignoring of that particular elephant which is always with us in the room. Fighting the inevitability of death, ignoring it or denying are less than optimal responses to it. The only creative way is to accept it and deal with the resulting feelings of anger or fear. In accepting it we will be able to see it in other living things, and this will open the way to our acknowledgement of our kinship with all life.

Empathy is the recognition of mortality in ourselves and in other living things, both human and non-human. To empathise is to recognise that, in Rifkin's words, “every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are entwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography,” and to acknowledge, face and accept that choreography. Empathy is critical to our individual and collective well-being. Not to mention the continuation of human life.

The difficulty many people have with empathy comes I think from two sources or factors. Firstly to accept the inevitability of death is to acknowledge that we are vulnerable, we are not invincible. Secondly, and this is of course not unrelated to the first, empathy introduces the possibility that we might experience change, that change might indeed be expected of us.

The Empathy symbol
The Empathy symbol
Hindu symbol of the universe
Hindu symbol of the universe
Christ Pantocrator. Image from Aquinas and More
Christ Pantocrator. Image from Aquinas and More

Vulnerability - grieving for Margaret

“But while we are thus shrouded by gross earthly veils,

How can the tones of the dancing spheres reach us?” - Rumi

For many people the denial of the inevitability of death means a denial of their emotional life, because dealing with the emotions means entering a world unknown, a world of darkness. Wilson van Dusen (“The Natural Depth in Man”, in Rogers and Stevens, Person to Person Souvenir Press, 1973) wrote of the “inner me”, which he also called l'autre moi , which is distinctly different from the “outer me” and includes “spontaneous associations of thought which arise unbidden when in a social context or alone.” Van Dusen pointed out that “The border of the inner is reached when spontaneous thoughts, feelings, or images arise, perhaps related to the outer situation at hand, but still autonomously surprising in their nature.” Empathy starts here. Daniel Goleman in his great book Emotional Intelligence (Bloomsbury, 1996), wrote, “Empathy builds on self-awareness; the more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we will be in reading feelings.”

This is precisely what we have difficulty with. Carl Rogers, in his essay “What it Means to Become a Person” (in On Becoming a Person , Houghton Mifflin, 1995), wrote, “In our daily lives there are a thousand and one reasons for not letting ourselves experience our attitudes fully, reasons from our past and from the present, reasons that reside within the social situation. It seems too dangerous, too potentially damaging, to experience them freely and fully.” And so we immerse ourselves in many avoidance strategies, like the pursuit of efficiency, money, status, power, ideological commitment, sex, ways to fill “the earth and subdue it, rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1: 28). Using these avoidance strategies blunts our sensitivity to not only our own feelings, but those of others. Goleman again: “The emotional notes and chords that weave through people's words and actions – the telling tone of voice or shift in posture, the eloquent silence or telltale tremble – go by unnoted.” Goleman continues: “This failure to register another's feelings is a major deficit in emotional intelligence, and a tragic failing in what it means to be human. For all rapport, the root of caring, stems from emotional attunement, from the capacity for empathy.”

Empathy, then, means to understand, at a very deep level, how another person is feeling, because we experience our own feelings clearly, and can see them in another.

“Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow's springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.”

  • Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The Communist Party symbol. What do you feel when you see it?
The Communist Party symbol. What do you feel when you see it?
Symbol of Islam. What do you feel when you see it?
Symbol of Islam. What do you feel when you see it?
A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex and the inferior
A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. In humans, brain activity consistent with that of mirror neurons has been found in the premotor cortex and the inferior
A section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands. Image from Wikipedia
A section of DNA. The bases lie horizontally between the two spiraling strands. Image from Wikipedia
Cheyenne Symbol of the Universe Shield. Image from
Cheyenne Symbol of the Universe Shield. Image from
William Irwin Thompson. Under "the Gates" in Central Park, 2005. Photo: Michele Laporte
William Irwin Thompson. Under "the Gates" in Central Park, 2005. Photo: Michele Laporte


From this flows the second aspect of empathy that is not easy to cope with – change. Because if we can understand another person's feelings because we recognise similar feelings in ourselves, it means we are starting to see the world from their point of view, we are moving into their world. This means having to let go of our view of the world, to which we have a strong attachment. We like to be “right” about things and it's very hard to let go of our “rightness”, which is why ideology and religion (though, perhaps, not spirituality) have such a strong hold on us. They tend to confirm us in the “rightness” of our position. But if we start to see the world from another person's perspective, we might have to modify or let go of our perspective. Dangerous stuff!

Change means we can no longer hide behind blame. If I can see the world as my enemy sees it, really understand my enemy's perception of it, can I remain in a state of enmity? If I'm a communist and really take the trouble to understand where the CEO of a large corporation is coming from, what his or her perspective on the world is, am I not in danger of losing the reason for my communist faith? If I as a Christian can really get into the world view of my Muslim neighbour, can I still think that Muslims are terrorists? If I as a black woman can really understand how a white man thinks and feels, can I still live in fear of him? If I, as an older white working class male, can really see the world from the point of view of the young unemployed black man, can I keep my prejudice against young black males?

No, I will have to let go of my need to blame others for my state of being, and start to accept others, and myself. I will have to forgive others, and myself. Because, once I have understood myself and others, once I have shared, to some extent, the world view of another, forgiveness is the only option left. I will have to let go of all those nice, comforting feelings of anger, hate and resentment against others because I will know that whatever anger, hate or resentment I feel, it is coming from me and to find peace I have to let them go, forgive myself and forgive everyone else also.

Empathy can get even more dangerous, really! We share this fragile biosphere with millions and billions of other organisms which carry the breath of life within them. Billions of other organisms have cells encoded with the code of life: DNA. Our life is connected, at a most intimate level, with every other living creature, from the microscopic single-celled amoeba to the most advanced primates.

Part of this vision of the connectedness of all life, indeed the whole universe, was beautifully expressed by William Irwin Thompson in his remarkable book At The Edge of History (Harper, 1979): “Since the mind is part of nature, we make a mistake when we imagine that the act of perception is through a window in which we are on one side and nature on the other. We are in nature, so there is no reason that subjectivity and objectivity should be so dissonantly arranged; it is more than likely that the key in which the nerves and the stars are strung is the same.”

So we are all ultimately part of the large scheme of things, the total system, and what affects a seal in the Arctic will have an impact on the whale in the Antarctic; what affects the turtle in the Gulf of Mexico has an impact on the sloth in Madagascar; what affects the little girl in a New York ghetto affects the Chinese farmer working in the rice paddy. We are not able to escape the bonds of mortality on planet earth, nor the bonds of a common dust in the universe. We are all, people and stars, of the same stuff.

Photo by Tony McGregor
Photo by Tony McGregor


What is the proper response, the enlightened human response to this connectedness? It is one of humility and awe in the face of the vastness of it all. It is one of respect, respect especially for life.

Of course this respect has to be given in the face of a world in which violence, hatred, disorder and unknowing are the order of the day.

So what is to be done in the face of mobs calling for the execution of a woman caught in adultery (the man in the case doesn't seem to deserve such punishment)? What to do when a man beats his wife's face to a pulp because he thinks she looked too long at another man in the supermarket? What to do when child dies on his mother's back because the doctors were too busy to attend to him? What to do when the oil is gushing out of the well and polluting the once-pristine waters and poisoning the fish on which people have relied for their livelihood for decades?

What to do in the face of the madness of war and the people who incite to war?

It feels too helpless to say that each individual needs to be aware of what is happening and take a stand against disconnectedness.

There are many forces in the world, and they are extremely powerful, trying to force people apart, trying to deny the living connectedness.

A white rhino
A white rhino
Viagra tablets
Viagra tablets

The age of Viagra

The power that seems supreme in the world is money. Just this week poachers killed a rhino in a local game reserve to cut off its horn to be used as medicine in the East. In spite of all the efforts being made to protect these animals they remain at the mercy of money. What parts of themselves did the poachers cut off as they cut off the unfortunate animal's horn? Was the money they were paid enough to balance out the self-amputation? Clearly it was, otherwise they would not have done that. That begs the question about how little a person can think of themselves that any amount of money could recompense them for such self-mutilation.

Another question this incident begs is, is there a need for powdered rhino horn in the age of viagra? What place does powdered rhino horn have when Viagra is available?

In this world, where such things can happen, I have to ask myself, what is my part in that, what role did I play in that brutal assault? Because for sure, I am part of each of the poachers, and I am part of the rhino, and I am part also of those who would pay for that horn. I have to think about that, however difficult and painful. I am a part of the world with all its pain, its injustice, its cruelty, and its beauty and love, and in that I have to make my own sense, and I hope, keep to the decision to respect and love it all.

To quote Thompson again: “ would seem that we are at one of those moments when the whole meaning of nature, self, and civilisation is overturned in a re-visioning of history as important as any technological invention.”

The reality of our powerlessness

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

Copyright Notice

The text this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor, who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010


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