I think about empathy quite a lot, both in the context of my own ability to feel empathy for others, and the context of philanthropy at the PF, where we see high or low levels empathy have dramatic effects on society and its problems. Increasingly it seems clear that a lack of empathy is the root of most inequality, mis-treatment, or injustice in our world. So is it possible to have too much empathy?
A while ago I was taught a technique meant to be used to alleviate intimidation or nerves from public speaking. It involved a mental projection of white wings on to the backs of everyone in the audience, and thinking of everyone as an angel. Each angel trying to learn, grow, get through the day, deal with problems and figure out life. It’s basically an equalising visual. One day I was practicing this projection technique while I went for a run. Every person I passed on the pavement or pulling out of their drive way I pictured with their angel wings and tried to imagine why they looked happy, sad, bored, tired, excited, etc. A couple of blocks from my house I came across a young boy who had fallen badly off his bike. He was injured and crying. People had gathered, the police arrived and an ambulance had been called. I wasn’t needed as a problem solver in that situation, so just watched for a few moments as people exhibited care, concern and did what they could to help him. Behind the scene, I noticed two women with small children walking towards the boy. They were happy and laughing, obviously oblivious to what was going on. As they approached the scene the injured boy cried out in pain. One woman’s countenance immediately and entirely changed. All thought of her conversation with her friend disappeared and she ran to the boy screaming his name. It was clear the injured boy was her son.
I left the scene, got home and recounted the story to a friend. I burst in to tears as I told them about the woman. It was strange. There was no blood or tragedy. The boy would surely be fine. But for the moment I was focused on the mother, I had felt what she had felt. And it was emotionally overwhelming. I haven’t tried that mental projection technique since then.
Empathy is exhausting. We couldn’t feel what other people feel all day, every day and be productive. We would be constantly emotionally drained, and never get anything done. We suppress our ability to empathise for a reason.
However, on regular occasions it also seems clear that my and others’ levels of empathy are too low. I read about injustices and terrible wrongs being done to real people, and then go and eat my lunch. We all watched with disbelief the Youtube video of the toddler who was run over and then ignored by passers by. I truly believe I and society would be healthier if we all cultivated higher levels of empathy. It seems that most problems and issues are caused by or significantly escalated by a lack of empathy.
Empathy is what drives us to care and act on behalf of others. It makes for healthy and loving relationships, it stimulates good deeds, and often moves strangers to acts of heroism. It is the motivating force behind social entrepreneurs and philanthropy. It is a force for good.
So what is a healthy level of empathy? I’m not sure there’s a way to articulate or quantify that, but we need more of it.