I’ve written repeatedly about empathy. The deeper I get into writing and exploring the concept, the more and more certain I become that empathy is the central theme in a spiritual life. The ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes is the driving force behind every kindness and philanthropy we commit, and if we as a race could but embrace this simple concept which even the most unexpected of nature’s creatures inherently grasp, universal peace and prosperity would be the inevitable result.
By now, most of us have read the story and seen the photos of the mother leopard who killed the mother baboon only to hear it’s infant crying and screaming in the tree. The pictures made headlines and were an internet sensation, chronicling the leopard’s climb into the tree to retrieve the baby ape, then nursing it. Empathy, folks. Recently, another similar but more debated video made the rounds showing an immense hippo cow helping a struggling zebra calf across a fast-moving river. Many weigh in about what we don’t see, what happens next, etcetera, but I say that none of that matters. Nature is nature, and baboons are prey for leopards, just as hippos are just as likely to kill anything in their section of river as they are to aid (or ignore) it. So what? These acts prove the power of empathy and heart-based decision making. And if human cameras have captured these events, just imagine how many such things happen that human eyes have never beheld?
Why is it so difficult for us to walk by a hungry, homeless person and not help? What drives the guilt with its nasty undercurrent of disgust? Because we see ourselves there. That’s why some get angry and why some can’t look them in the eye and why some simply can’t walk by without trying to help. Because we know in our hearts and souls that it’s really us sitting there, hoping someone will help. This connection we all feel, this immutable, undeniable recognition that we really are all one, all individual cells in the one being that is creation, this is what drives charity and compassion, Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s why we invite dogs and cats and birds into our families. It’s why firefighters run toward the danger.
It’s Empathy, and it’s built in. Hard-wired into our systems. It’s why we cringe and run to the window when we hear the tires squeal and the metal crunch in the street behind the house. It’s why we hold hands and hope (or pray, if that’s your thing) that no one’s badly hurt, and why we applaud and cheer when we see the victims walk away.
But somewhere along the way, we learn to ignore it, to turn the volume down and work around it. We walk past enough homeless people that it becomes easy. We replace our prayers for safety with muttered curses about damn crazy drivers. We wait in anticipation for the leopard to rip the baby baboon’s throat out.
And we push the “close doors” button on the elevator as someone is rushing toward us shouting “hold please!”. We avoid the contact that causes us to feel connected. Avert our eyes. Shut ourselves out. This is how we separate. This is the origin. This is war and persecution and divorce and racism and every difference and every rift we perceive in humanity. And it’s all an illusion.
There is a Native American phrase that pops up frequently in New Age thought (I couldn’t tell you which of the First Nations is its source) which tells us that “There is no tree whose branches are foolish enough to fight amongst themselves”. The tree knows it’s branches are all connected, and the branches know it too. Their quest to survive and thrive is a cooperative effort. Internecine war would impede that survival. The trees also provide shade and oxygen and fruits and nuts for the rest of the forest. Symbiosis. Awfully similar to the concept of empathy.
All this may seem kind of rambling to you, and a bit left-field, “airy-fairy” in nature. It is a nebulous conversation, I admit. I’m grateful you’ve stuck around and read this far. Now allow it to sink in just a bit if you would. Contemplate your own feelings and explore precisely why you react the way you do when the homeless person sticks their hand out. Whether you look away or cross the street or slip them a fiver or sit down next to them and strike up a conversation. Ask yourself “Why?” If you’re afraid or intimidated, look at what causes that feeling. Is it because you feel that you’d be bitter or angry in their shoes? Are you embarrassed that you don’t have any cash to give them and you’re sure that they wouldn’t believe you if you said so?
Just look inside. That’s all I’ll ever ask of you here. Allow yourself to experience the connections. Open yourself to a connected, shared existence. Feel it. And think what humanity could accomplish if everyone felt it.