"I told you once that I was searching for the nature of evil. I think I've come close to defining it: a lack of empathy. It's the one characteristic that connects all the defendants. A genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow man. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy." -- Gustav M. Gilbert, German-speaking American prison psychologist at Spandau prison in Berlin, where Nazi war crimes defendants were held, 1945
OK. Let me get this straight. “Torture” is good. And “empathy” is bad. Soon after Obama mentioned empathy as a general criterion for a Supreme Court nominee, many Republicans are trying to make it a pejorative. Mortimer Hayden Smyth did a video piece on what the word means yesterday. And Dorinda Fox, someone with loads of empathy, encouraged me to write this.
What is empathy? The dictionary has many definitions, but Bill Clinton may have said it best: “I feel your pain.” It’s not just Do Unto Others, as You Would Have Them Do Unto You. It’s feeling others’ joys and sorrows and well-being as you would feel them yourself.
As with most things, you can overdo it. Then you’re a bleeding heart. I had a girlfriend whose bellman-father tipped 30 percent or more, and had trouble paying the rent. That was something beyond empathy.
You know if you’re empathic or not. Here are some examples I’ve come up with. Feel free to add others.
You have empathy when you
… go to the back to pass a buck to the busboy.
... support gay marriage, even if you're not gay.
... defend someone whom others bully.
… give up your preferred seat on a long flight to let a couple sit together.
… argue against intolerance/injustice even when all others around you disagree.
… step around the man sprawled on the front step of the office building, and think “There but for the grace of God,” not “stupid drunk.”
… get up from American Idol and get the leash when your dog looks urgently in your eyes, not after the show is over.
… yawn when someone else does (scientific theory as written in the NY Times –yawn and check your friends to see who does and doesn’t).
… feel the sadness of a poignant movie longer than it takes to get out of your seat in the theater.
… ask the new person to sit next to you.
… listen for long as it takes to a friend’s woes, even though you’d rather be sleeping.
… volunteer to feed the homeless, not just on Thanksgiving.
… invite someone who lives alone to join you for dinner.
… visit your mom’s friend, at a nursing home.
… feel the scrape when your child has a boo-boo.
… give to charity, even when money is tight, and it’s not much.
… swerve to avoid an ant on the sidewalk; swoosh a fly out the window.
… even avert your eyes at a lobster tank (ok, that might be a bit much, but I do).
… cringe when you see a person getting a paper cut.
… accept a Halfway House in your neighborhood.
… fight racism or bigotry at every chance.
You have empathy when you care about the world, and the dignity and worth of every living creature. Sorry Republicans who are balking at this, since when is empathy an effing pejorative?