Even before taking our first steps, we are already in acquisition of a profound language that requires no prior training to learn. This language has no words, forms no sentences and yet weaves emotional backdrops that would be the envy of any storyteller. I refer of course to our ability to, in a single glance, instantly read the subdued tones of anguish, boredom and ecstasy in a person. Unlike a snake’s unblinking gaze at watching its eggs getting smashed, we react with identifiable pain and horror at many different forms of tragedies. Unless we are impaired in some way, this area of non-verbal communication and emotional sensitivity is one in which we all start out as geniuses.
When an infant begins her exploratory journey around the playroom, amidst the occasional bumbling and wide eyed curiosity, she will sometimes look back at her mother for emotional cues. If the infant senses encouragement and security, she is reassured and continues her navigation. Likewise even as adults, we learn much about how another person feels about us by merely looking deeply into their eyes and combining that abstract reading with action and body language. A trembling voice, a silent stare or a sad smile is enough information for us to get by. Assuming we aren’t speculating about strangers from a distance, we can reasonably infer the quality of our friendships, families and those we are attracted to.
All these allow us to develop a more complex emotional quality that’s more nuanced and heightened: empathy – the ability to put ourselves in another person’s position. Without it, we would have little motivation to help someone, much less care for another species or the environment. Empathy is precisely what stops us from going all out in a burst of vengeance, or the incentive to do a bit more for those who have fewer opportunities. It doesn’t stop there. Highly empathetic individuals form tremendously powerful and loving relationships – being sensitive to the needs of your significant other greatly reduces quarrels, fosters tenderness and continuously generates feelings of goodwill. Empathy is also perhaps the one quality that everyone assumes they have because they think they’ve understood it.
Empathy is not simply the capacity to feel but also emotional knowledge of when to act, or sometimes, not at all. There are moments when sympathy and advice can do far more harm by enabling damaging behaviour. More importantly, there are considerable limits to empathy. Try as you might, you will never be able to understand how it feels like to have a terminal illness, to see the slow wasting of the body as it languishes and chokes. Those who lead normal lives cannot grasp the torturous mental imprisonment brought about by schizophrenia. Neither can we truly comprehend the slew of horrendous injuries a soldier can suffer (or less commonly, be forced to inflict on others) in a war. In these cases, an apology or muttering ‘I understand how you feel’ is not particularly helpful.
However, it’s not just moments of crises where empathy is stretched raw. Remarkably powerful experiences such as that of familial love or attraction can also fall short of our ability to understand: A father who, against conventional common sense and expectation, gives up anything and everything to take care of his dying child; someone so deeply drawn to another that he is brought down to his knees; emotional wounds and etched memories that never heal even with the passage of time. As bystanders, it’s easy to cynically mock such experiences as huge personal blunders, or to dismiss them as impossibilities and exaggerations, but we forget that in a single spectrum of experience, there will always be those who reside in the extreme ends.
Because the narrative of every individual’s life branches with complexity, unpredictable variation and irrationality, it’s safe to say that we can never fully empathise with another person comprehensively. But that admission is all that matters. It means we are more likely to work towards humility rather than being brashly dismissive, and less likely to rush to undue (and unfair) judgements of people. Empathy is a precious commodity, but even more inestimably valuable in the hands of those who recognise its limits and applications.