Empathy Requires Practice

Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/@pixabay

Image credit: https://www.pexels.com/@pixabay

In researching my post on unthinking unkindness on Facebook, I encountered a statement from the American Psychological Association:

Empathy is the trait that makes us human.

The assertion gave me pause.

First, let's define empathy. According to Mirriam-Webster, empathy is the capacity to notice and share the feelings of another person, whether the person is real or fictional. I may sense that you're sad from behavioral cues or because something I consider sad befalls you. In turn, I may feel sad with you. That's empathy.

So don't nonhuman animals empathize?

Actually, they do. Biologists fight the notion that humans alone have the capacity to empathize with other animals. After all, the capability had to evolve from somewhere. Research summarized by Frans de Waal in an article in the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good: Science of a Meaningful Life, indicates that animals—especially mammals—-do express empathy for other creatures.

Want an example? A 1964 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry and mentioned in de Waal's article found that a rhesus monkey refused to pull a chain that provided food if pulling the chain shocked a companion. The animals would rather starve than eat at the expense of another animal; one monkey even went without food for a solid twelve days.

That's not to say that humans can't be more empathetically advanced than nonhuman animals:

  • We can ascribe feelings to an object, such as a work of art of something in nature. For example, we can look at a painting and feel things that we think the person depicted might feel. Numerous religious devotional paintings inspire emotions in the devout.

  • All animals are programmed to fear and dislike outsiders. As de Waal writes, even humans have trouble liking people who are different in culture and skin color. Yet humans do have the ability to project themselves into the outsiders' positions and empathize.

These examples of advanced human empathy are in no way "givens." Biologists have determined that empathy is innate, yet its highest forms require practice and refinement. As de Waal points out, "[Empathy] is a hard-wired response that we fine-tune and elaborate upon in the course of our lives."

All worthwhile things in life take practice.

Sadly, few of us bother to hone the art of empathy. We should. The better we understand and care about each other, the better the world could be. The more human we are, the more humane we can be.

Want to make the world a better place? Practice your empathy.