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"Can I see another’s woe, / And not be in sorrow, too? / Can I see another’s grief, / And not seek for kind relief?"
What William Blake here had in mind was empathy as we usually think of it -- in connection with another person’s misfortune. But empathy can also connect with another person’s good fortune. In his prayer-poem, "The Celestial Surgeon," Robert Louis Stevenson reproaches himself at the thought that "beams from happy human eyes / Have moved me not."
Someone tells of a man who came by to meet his friend and saw her talking with a shabbily-dressed woman with a small child at her side. As he approached, he saw his friend give money to the stranger who then, with her child in tow, quickly moved on. When he reached his friend she told him that that little child had leukemia. He said: "Nonsense. That kid’s not sick. It’s a scam!" His friend said: "You mean that child doesn’t have leukemia?" "Of course not," he insisted. "Oh," she replied, "That’s a relief!"’
Who do you think was practicing empathy here? The woman who gave money to that mother or the man who said the mother was lying? Maybe both? Maybe both. You might be as surprised about that as you were with the woman’s expression of relief. We’re going to think about empathy so we might do empathy better.
Some people insist on distinguishing empathy from sympathy. These purists want us to say we empathize with people in the same boat and sympathize with people in a different boat. To them, "I feel your pain" is empathy but "I can imagine your pain" is sympathy. Fair enough. We don’t want to be so insensitive as to tell people we "know exactly" what they’re going through when we’ve never gone through exactly what they’re going through. But fussing over rigid distinctions might mean we’ll miss the boat on empathy -- no matter what we call it. Besides, are we not all in the same boat? Some may be in First Class and some may be in steerage, but we’re all on the "Titanic."
In addition to empathy as this ability to feel for or identify with another in his or her situation, there’s another dimension to empathy. The emphasis here is on accurate prediction. Empathy can be the ability to predict accurately the thinking, feeling and behavior of others.
Back when I was in grad school I studied a psychometric instrument called The Empathy Test. Its validity was established on the basis of how well car salesmen (they were all men in those days) could predict the difference between those who were serious about buying a car and those who dropped by only to take a ride. Obviously, an ability to predict which were serious buyers and which were not could save lots of time and money for the dealer. He didn’t want to be taken for a ride. Here, empathy wasn’t about warm fuzzies; it was about cold cash. So empathy isn’t just hand-holding. The better we are at empathic accuracy, the more successful we’ll be in all sorts of relationships with other people.
Weegee was the ultimate tabloid news photographer. He worked the streets of New York City in the 1930s and 40s. He was proto-paparazzi. It’s said that he "craved a visceral response" and "went for the solar plexus, intent on taking your breath away." That took skill in empathic accuracy, whatever was missing in empathic identification with his subjects. In his book, Naked City, Weegee said he cried when he took pictures of two women watching relatives burn to death in a fire. Nonetheless, he kept his camera focused and kept on shooting. Reviewing last year’s exhibition of his life’s work, a New York Times writer commented: "Well, empathy is in the eye of the beholder." [Vicki Goldberg] And she’s right. Empathy is in the eye of the beholder, though we usually think of empathy’s being more in the heart. Empathy’s about both perception and emotion, insight and passion. Empathy is about the ability to infer what someone else is thinking and feeling. We can be mind readers -- in this sense. We can learn to "read" others -- inferring with a practical degree of accuracy, what they are likely to think, feel, and do. But we can learn to do this only over time -- through practiced observation of that other person, experience with that other person, and reasoning about that other person. The stranger gets stranger before becoming more familiar -- predictable. People do tend to be their typical selves but it takes some time and observation to know what’s typical. And although it’s important not to confuse ourselves with others and our ideas, values, desires and so on with those of others, it’s nonetheless true that if we pay intelligent attention to ourselves and our own experience, we’ll be better able to "read" others. We share with them more than we often assume.