There is no such thing as “natural empathy.” Empathy is developmental. It is learned. And, thankfully, most people live somewhere in the window of normal empathy development.
Yes, we can have grouchy days. Yes, we can take secret pleasure in the humiliation of our antagonists. But most of us have in our interpersonal repertoire the spontaneous restraint of our aggressions in the face of someone weak, in distress or suffering. Our power is automatically – that is, preconsciously – bridled and gentled in the company of those with less power.
Like when I was waiting my turn to ride this huge inner tube down a hill at Brian Head, Utah. I’m standing there, lost in my thoughts, enjoying the kiss-sting of snowflakes on my face, and suddenly a plaintive voice says to me, “Have you seen Mike?”
At my feet, looking up at me, is a 4, maybe 5-year-old girl. She has gotten separated from her caregivers. Her voice trembles as her persona of bravery begins to crack and give way to fear.
Just like that, some invisible force drags me out of line. The force bends my knees, makes me smaller, so our eyes can meet in a horizontal line. The force softens my voice, melts my heart and molds my facial expressions into gentleness and friendship. I call out to the crowd on her behalf. We find Mike.
The name of the force is empathy.
A rare few have such a highly developed sense of empathy that they seem near psychic in their ability to read the emotional states of others.
On the other end of the continuum are sociopaths, also thankfully rare. The fundamental pathology of a sociopath is the categorical absence of empathy. The suffering of others goes largely unnoticed. When it is noticed, it evokes curiosity, like the curiosity of a junior high science student staring into a petri dish. For some sociopaths, the suffering of others evokes pleasure.
The mainstream of psychological research and literature will agree that the development of empathy – its emergence or its failure to emerge – occurs very early in our lives. The essential die is cast somewhere between ages 4 and 9. How?
Hard to imagine what on planet Earth is more helpless than a newborn human. No life form is more helpless and dependent for a longer period of time. From the moment we are born, our capacity for empathy is developed primarily as we experience the empathy of those charged with our care and upbringing.
Competent and loving caregivers pay attention to us. They pay attention to our vulnerability, our neediness, our helplessness. They coo and talk to us in pleasant tones. They touch us gently. They hold us in arms strong, firm, safe yet soothing. They protect us. They put good food into our mouths and change our soiled clothes. They tend to our nakedness – our hygiene and toileting – with honor and respect.
They respond to our neediness both by meeting our needs and taking every opportunity to teach us how to respect and meet our own needs. That is, empathic parents promote competence – not dependence.
There really is only one parental sin: the failure of empathy. The gross failures are easy to spot: physical abuse, sexual abuse, malnutrition, endangerment, neglect, etc. But most parental failures of empathy are more common and normal.
Such as that rise of irritation in response to a 2-year-old’s whining. (Whining is the language of need for 2-year-olds!) Such as saying “Be a man!” to a 6-year-old boy who has just tumbled off his bike. (Uh, 6-year-olds aren’t men, you big goofus.) Such as scoffing and shrugging off your 15-year-old’s broken heart. (Breaking up with a boyfriend/girlfriend is the No. 1 item mentioned in teenage suicide notes.)
All parents regularly fail in empathy, if for no other reason than that we get tired and run out of the energy to pay attention.
But here’s some good news for us imperfect parents: We redeem failed empathy with empathy! “I wasn’t listening … I didn’t take you seriously … I was really selfish and insensitive … You so did not deserve the way I just talked to you.” We account to our children, which, paradoxically, invites our children to have empathy for the very human limits of their very human parents.
If we handle it right, even our parental failures teach empathy to our children.
Steven Kalas is an author, counselor and Episcopal Priest in Nevada. He writes a weekly column on the art of being human. You can reach him at “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org” email@example.com.