Shared Feelings

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
Rom 12:15

In his book, The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin speaks of mirror neurons recently discovered in the brain that are the basis for human empathy.  Empathy is the capacity we have to feel what others are feeling as though we were experiencing it ourselves. And for Rifkin, the potential for cultivating this capacity is what gives him hope for humanity.

Empathy is the basis for compassion, from which justice and mercy arise.  It gives us solidarity with the plight and the frailties of others.  We cry when we see someone else crying.  Or we empathize with the person who has lost their home, or the child whose feelings are hurt.  It also gives us solidarity with the plight of non-humans.  We feel for the baby seals in Labrador.  Even clear-cut logging can appeal to our sense of empathy for a denuded landscape.

But empathy, according to Rifkin, is not hard-wired.  It can be cultivated or atrophied.  As Jesus warns, our love has the potential to grow cold.  Our hearts can become calloused and lose sensitivity to the needs around us.  With our affections disordered, we no longer feel the way we should for the concerns of others.  But empathy is also something we can cultivate.

For Rifkin, to empathize is to be more fully human.  He envisions the extension of empathy to the whole human race as well as to fellow creatures, including the biosphere.  It is not difficult to imagine such an increase in global empathy.  When, for instance, the earthquakes hit Haiti, within an hour we had You-Tube videos available globally.  Within a few hours of the event the whole world was geared up in empathic response.

Another person for whom empathy provides hope for human potential is the Carmelite scholar Edith Stein who sees it as God’s invitation for us to become more fully human.   Stein recognizes empathy as the very basis for community when she writes,

Empathy comes to life when the “I” of the self and the “you” of the other emerge as a “we” at a higher level. Empathic individuals are thus able to engage a larger world than their own.

All our relationships, to some degree, are the result of empathy.  It’s what allows us to “get into” the other person, to understand and to share experiences with someone else.  For Stein, this “crossing over” to the other person is what takes place in any meaningful communication where we enjoy a moment of shared experience.

Another attribute of our mirror neurons is that they enable us to also experience what the other person feels about us.  Empathy helps us form a more objective opinion of who we are. As Stein puts it,

I get the image the other has of me, a reflection of what I present of myself to them. Such an experience of reflexive sympathy enables me to obtain a better understanding of myself. This new self-knowledge offers a corrective to the illusions I have about myself, allowing me to gain a glimpse of who I appear to be through the eyes of another.

Self-understanding then is made more accurate by what we learn about ourselves from those around us. By becoming aware of the evaluation of others, including our sense of how God feels, we are brought to question our evaluation of ourselves, and led to a more precise and mature self-knowledge.