Is Empathy Really Possible?

The Weekly Manna speaker at the University of St. Thomas’s School of Law Weekly Manna gathering yesterday a noon was my colleague Lyman Johnson.  He titled his reflection Bridging the Otherness of Others, with an alternative title that asked Is Empathy Really Possible?

Lyman began his reflection with the reality that we always see another’s situation from our own vantage point.  He quoted something William Ernest Hocking said once in reference to his wife: “How would it seem if my mind could but once be within thine; and we could meet and without barrier be with each other?”  Lyman suggested the line captured a sense of both yearning and failure: a desire to experience the world as another experiences it, and an appreciation of an ultimate inability to do so.

He then talked about how we might bridge that otherness and see as antoher person sees. A couple of observations based on his remarks.

First, empathy and sympathy are too different things.  Sympathy – feeling sorry for another – is good, but it is distancing.  It does not involve my having to really see from the other person’s standpoint.  In fact, most often our sympathy comes from our own feelings about another’s situation.  Empathy is a more unitive feeling.

Second, I think Lyman is correct that too often we equate our own view of the world as being the world.  I think the first step to empathy is simply being cognizant of the fact that my view of the world is precisely that – one view, a view that does not represent the totality of truth (although one hopes it contains some truth).

Third, while we can never fully see from the mind and eyes of another, we can be open to hearing others talk about their experience and to using our imagination to try to understand their feelings and experiences.  That we can’t achieve a Vulcan mind-meld that would allow us fully into another’s mind and experience, we can work at greater empathy.  And our world needs us to develop greater empathy.




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