Empathy

Winter, 2013.

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus Finch in
 To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

I was admiring this snowy view from my kitchen window, which overlooks a wide cobbled alley (some remnant from the Victorian age) when I saw, limping around, a white cat. I had the most immediate, obvious thought: it must be hurt. Then I had the other immediate, obvious, and more fanciful thought: I should help; and not merely help, but adopt the animal somehow, as though I could wander down and up again like a kid returning home with a jar of insects. I already have enough cats at home as it is (and who would all unanimously object to having another feline around) but I at least decided to go down, have a gander, and see if I could help in some way. I leaped into my shoes and headed to the bottom of the stairwell with a box of cat biscuits. The cat, seeing me come out and into the garden, propped itself up, turned its ears towards me, momentarily quarrelled with itself (I imagine), then decided to flee on what I saw were its three legs. I watched it run up the alley and into a disordered set of trees and bushes. I put down some biscuits on the cobbles and went back to my third-floor kitchen window to spy on it. It didn’t return, but my concern and anxiety lingered, even though I’d seen first-hand that the cat was spry enough.

The word “empathy” is barely a hundred years old, and was a translation from the German term, ‘Einfühlungsvermögen’ (or simply ‘Einfühlung’), which itself was born in the 19th century and coined by German philosopher, Robert Vischer, and later expounded on by fellow German Theodor Lipps. The British psychologist Edward B. Titcher was the translator who brought the word to the English-speaking world in the opening decade of the twentieth century. The term was first coined to explain our aesthetic experiences of art and nature, but Lipps expanded its meaning to incorporate and explain how we experience our fellow beings – animal or man. The differences between empathy and sympathy seem slight, but, as the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy notes, the term ’empathy’ is multi-faceted, and allows for negative feelings in addition to positive ones, which ‘sympathy’ itself does not do. “‘Sympathy’,” it notes, “means a specific affective response such as compassion or pity, whereas ’empathy’ once again encompasses affects in general including negative ones such as anger, fear, or resentment.” The root word ‘Einfühlung’ itself means ‘feeling one’s way into’, and describes the process of how we get under the skin of those we empathise with – we simultaneously project our humanity on to others and invite them and all of their emotional or physical baggage unto ourselves. ‘Sympathy’ is, not to denigrate the word, ‘mere’ compassion or pity, somewhat detached. In the modern day, to say “I feel for you” carries with it a disengagement of sorts, and to say “I pity you” is almost outright derogatory. Empathy also allows us to associate with the pain and misfortune of others, and to feel anger or resentment towards the pain-inflicting agent (be it another person, or animal, or something more abstract like the world at large) as a result. To crudely define them as they now stand; sympathy is to acknowledge plight; empathy is to understand it. In the light of the latter, sympathy doesn’t seem to do much for us, any more.

I keep walking through the house and back to the window to survey that little mound of cat food, to see if it’s been eaten or even nibbled. The snow is heavier now, fast like a rain. There’s a slight chill, even inside. I imagine the three-legged cat huddling in a bush somewhere (those naked, barbed bushes you get in untidy places), feeling afraid, cold, and possibly hungry. I feel guilty for being indoors. I look at my own fat cats (who always look unimpressed) as though they are wantonly ungrateful. Outside the snow will get heavier and the cracks between the cobbles will fill with slush and, piece-by-piece, the little wet lump of food will drift away.

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