“Suffering and joy teach us, if we allow them, how to make the leap of empathy, which transports us into the soul and heart of another person. In those transparent moments we know other people’s joys and sorrows, and we care about their concerns as if they were our own,” explains Fritz Williams, Leader Emeritus of the Baltimore Ethical Society.
Infants respond to the cries of other infants; toddlers are upset when they see another in distress. Young children try to soothe others who are hurt and adults wince when they see another injured. This ability to identify with the inner life of another begins at the dawn of self-awakening.
How lovely to find satisfaction in that which others have enjoyed. This ability to find happiness in another’s joy is a wonderful trait. And to taste another’s tears is crucial for the alleviation of suffering and the move towards social justice.
Empathy is essential for living well. It frees us from the bonds of isolation and, therefore, exaggerated fear. We know that we aren’t alone, that we are intimately bound to the fate of others and they with us. To participate in the pleasures and sorrows of someone we love is to know one of life’s great satisfactions. To imagine the misfortunes of those we don’t know personally is the basis of social justice.
Here is one of my favorite stories about empathy. It comes from Mark Salzburg’s Iron and Silk, his account of being a teacher in China. He gave this assignment to his students: write an essay about the happiest moment of your life. One student composed a rhapsody about eating Peking duck while visiting the capital city.
“It was like clouds disappearing,” he wrote.
The teacher gave the student great praise, but after class the student came with a confession. He said that he had never been to the capital and he had never had Peking duck. But his wife had gone and she described the delicacy to him.
“She tells me about it again and again,” he said, “and I think, even though I was not there, it is my happiest moment.”
So here is a good question for meditation: What moves you to feel with another person?