The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Understanding Through Empathy

Having read Lance Mannion on empathy, I want to talk about what it is, and why people fear it. Empathy just means you understand what another feels.  (Or, as modern brain science and ancient common sense tells us that you “feel” what others feel.)  It’s morally neutral, but without empathy it’s very probably you can’t make it to sympathy.  Empathy is the quality that lets you “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”.

It can be used for good or evil, but it tends towards good.  Usually, if we feel someone’s pain, we don’t want to add to it, since doing so will add to our pain.  However, there’s no question that in some cases, and for some people, the pain of others is pleasurable.

Also understanding someone else is the best first step to defeating them or hurting them horribly, which is one reason why those who know us best are the ones who can hurt us the most, because they know where the tender spots and the vulnerabilities are.  The best martial artists often talk about becoming one with the person they fight and competitive athletes use empathy to crush their opponents, as do good generals.

There is no deep understanding without empathy.  If you cannot walk in another’s shoes; if you cannot feel their pains and their joys, then you do not understand them.  Period.

People fear empathy because most people can’t avoid going from empathy to sympathy and because they think that if they feel even an echo they become that person.  They think “if I understand, if I feel what a terrorist/murderer/rapist/other bad person feels, if I know why they do what they do, I am like them”. And they believe that if they feel what a bad person felt, then they will feel sympathy for that person, and they only want to feel sympathy for good people, and for victims, not for those who have done evil.  Who perhaps are evil.

They don’t want to recognize, among other things, the evil in themselves and what they have in common with those who have done evil.

Likewise empathy requires the ability to forget about yourself for a time, to lose yourself and become someone else.  That loss of self, temporary as it is, is frightening to many.

But when you fail to empathize with those you disagree with you fail to understand them.  Instead of understanding them you label them–you give them a name you think covers what they are.  So you call them a terrorist, or you call them evil, or you call them a liberal or a conservative or a nazi.  Nothing wrong with any of those words, they describe things in the world.  But if you don’t understand people you may apply the wrong word to them, or you may apply a word that covers only part of what they are.  And then they will act in ways that surprise you, because you’ve only labeled them, not understood them.

Sometimes that doesn’t matter, because they’re too weak to matter or they are too remote from you for your opinion to be of any concern.  But sometimes it does matter.  If you think all Iraqis are sand niggers who only understand force, for example, well you’re going to treat them in a certain way, aren’t you?  And if they aren’t just sand niggers who only understand force, well, maybe that’s going to backfire.  If you think a Presidential candidate is a liberal and a progressive, and give him money, time and your vote, and he isn’t, well, that has consequences, doesn’t it?  If you think that an organization as complex as Hezbollah are “just terrorists”, well, you’re going to be surprised when they don’t act like “just terrorists” most of the time and you get your ass handed to you by them.


Empathy isn’t a fuzzy virtue.  It isn’t even a virtue at all, it is an ability.  It can be used for good, or for evil.  Once you understand someone you can use that understanding to help them, to heal them, to hurt them or to destroy them.  Reject empathy and you reject understanding your fellow humans as well as you otherwise could.  In war, that can lead to defeat; in justice that can lead to injustice; and in relationships that kills love.


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  1. someofparts

    This book

    suggested something interesting that has influenced me ever since I read it.

    The author argues that our current religious practices have no structures to keep us in the habit of taking responsibility for our moral mistakes. She notes that the traditon of confession among Catholics has served this purpose, but when the Protestant denominations dropped that tradition we didn’t replace it with any other ceremony of moral reckoning. As a consequence, we have moved entirely away from taking any responsibilty at all for our wrongs.

  2. senecal

    “Likewise empathy requires the ability to forget about yourself for a time, to lose yourself and become someone else. That loss of self, temporary as it is, is frightening to many.”

    This is the gist of it, to me. Fear of loss of self equals for of dying. A primitive fear, for all but a few.

    I believe empathy could be taught, or cultivated in early childhood, but not in this culture. Belief in scarcity, and the imperative of competition, are critical to the functioning of a capitalist economy. Empathy is going against the grain. Luckily, the culture isn’t so tight that we can’t at least experience it some of the time.

  3. Ian, this is a wonderful post. And I agree with you completely.

  4. Walk a mile in my shoes.
    Before you abuse, criticize and accuse,
    Walk a mile in my shoes.

    I actually have a solution to the problem, but everyone freaks out when I mention rope and lamppost in the same breath.

  5. adrena

    Empathy can be taught – it is a central tenet of nursing theory and education and has become important in other disciplines as well. It’s a skill that ideally should be included in the early childhood curriculum.

    Great post, Ian.

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