Empathy and Art
My earliest memory of feeling empathy is Christmas 1969. I was 7 years old, sitting under a tree with an obscene number of gifts I had just opened, and feeling truly ecstatic, when I noticed my Mother had no Christmas presents. Not one. I burst into tears of guilt. My father took me to a drug store, and we found Mom a candle, and it was my first present to her. Neither Dad nor I had any ability to wrap a candle, so we gave it to Mom to wrap. And when she opened it an hour or so later, she loved that candle as she loved her children. She got candles from me for decades after that, and for nearly every occasion. It took several additional hours for me to recognize that Dad hadn’t gotten any presents, either, and Mom took me to the drug store to buy Dad a pipe. I gave him most of the pipes he used to smoke. These Traditions were the product of Empathy.
I have, and I would guess most of you have, wept for Tom Robinson. I have cheered for Sherlock Holmes. I have spoken with Hamlet repeatedly about the value and meaning (or lack thereof) of life. I have felt joy for Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. I learned Friendship from Sam and Frodo, and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. I learned courage from Santiago and his marlin, and morality from Atticus Finch. I have faced George’s agonizing moral dilemma concerning his best friend, Lenny, when George tells him to think about the rabbits. These are all other examples of Empathy.
I believe Empathy is essential to being human. Too much Empathy is dangerous, of course. You can’t possibly grieve for every tragedy in the world. No one has that vast an emotional landscape. But, the inability to feel for others is, in my mind, the root of evil. You don’t kill people not because it’s against the law, but because you can feel for someone besides yourself. You won’t commit most acts of violence or cruelty for the same reasons. You can imagine how you would feel if it happened to you. You can’t do something you believe to be evil because you can experience the emotions of Others.
I believe an exposure to The Arts is essential for increasing a person’s Empathy. It’s in books, movies, music, paintings, poetry, dance, and other forms of Art that we find our own feelings. And it’s where we learn to feel the joys and pains that our fellow travelers on this little ball in space are likely to feel, themselves. It’s in catharsis that we learn the most about ourselves and each other.
When we can understand each other, we can dispense with the idea of Us vs. Them. We can move forward together, as a species, and this is a product of Empathy. I care about you because I recognize some of myself in you. I hope you can see some of yourself in me, too.