One of our most powerful, affective emotions is our ability to feel or relate to the condition of another. While emotions such as grief and guilt often lead to paralysis, empathy leads us to action. We witness the suffering of someone in our community, read an emotive Facebook post of a friend in need of help, or hear the pained cries of our child and are moved to act. (We donate money to a personal cancer fund, offer advice, and comfort our child.) Why? Because we, in part, are able to personally feel the experience of that person standing outside ourselves. We are hit by an emotional wave that is personal, and that wave pushes us forward.
And this is a beautiful human characteristic – a trait that evolution has bestowed upon us, this instinctive, emotional pull to help others by feeling their pain and suffering. It’s an emotion cognitive neuroscientists are currently researching, trying to understand how it works. For if we learn how empathy truly functions, perhaps we can evoke with greater regularity this beautiful, moral emotion.
However, this beautiful human characteristic – beneficial when the world is small, say a family or a village – has become a liability and, in some cases, a destructive force in our world.
In some ways, empathy is killing us.