The Blog

Why I Have to Believe in the Human Capacity for Empathy...

Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else's position, feeling what they feel, seeking to understand what they're experiencing, as opposed to sympathy which always feels to me more of a passive act.

I hit a wall, in the metaphorical not literal sense. It was during a recent Park Run. For those not aware of this inspiring event, they are a 5 Km Saturday morning jog through the parks and open spaces of Britain and beyond. So, back to this wall, it hit me. Lots of big things were whizzing through my mind in a tumultuous tumble and I stopped running and started walking. I never do this. I'm no Paula Radcliffe but always run the whole course in a fairly respectable time. But on this occasion, there were no reserves, no physical strength and no mental will urging me on and giving me a good talking to. Loaded upon this was the feeling of failure and despite the spring sun I felt like I was in a very dark place.

Then, a cheery voice sang out, 'Come on, you can do it, only 600 meters to go, come on.' A warm, albeit sweaty smile accompanied this encouragement. Then I did it. I ran. Ran my (sports) socks off and at the 200 meter mark I even sprinted.

It got me thinking about why this woman who I don't know and whom I will probably never meet again, bothered to do this and why did I let a stranger so influence and change me. The conclusion I arrived at was empathy.

Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else's position, feeling what they feel, seeking to understand what they're experiencing, as opposed to sympathy which always feels to me more of a passive act. This woman looked at me and spoke as though she knew what it was to struggle and how bad that felt but how good it could feel if I could dig deep and quite literally, jog on.

Contrast this however with a shocking scene I witnessed recently. I was in a car with a friend and we passed an ambulance on the side of the road. The paramedics were tending to someone splayed on the ground as a bystander stood and filmed it on their phone. Why, for what purpose? Someone was going through pain and didn't need to be made to feel like they were appearing in their very own freak show. Shock and disgust filled every pore. There have been cases in the news of those contemplating suicide being encouraged to do so by bystanders and in hearing this, the depths of bleakness I can feel for humankind feel like they know no bounds. How can a human being look at a fellow human being in such desperation and not feel that pain, appreciate that anguish, care about that crisis?

The Capitalist mentality could suggest that survival of the fittest is all, that winning is everything, that it's a dog eat dog world and we need to strive for individual fulfillment and personal advancement at all costs. But surely this flies in the face of insurmountable evidence to the contrary. The Equal Pay Act 1970 came about as a result of joint action by a group of people; Elizabeth Fry worked to improve conditions for prisoners, particularly for women and children; Josephine Butler campaigned against child prostitution, influenced the raising of the age of consent from 13 to 16 and campaigned against the Contagious Diseases Acts which targeted women living near naval and army bases, subjecting them to forced medical examinations for venereal disease, the Act was finally repealed in 1886; in 1984 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activists helped and supported striking miners in South Wales and every year we dig deep to give millions to Children in Need and rally when tragedy strikes like the recent devastating Nepal earthquake.

So many more examples could be given. Many of these actions brought about great improvements to society and some are acts of kindness and often overwhelming generosity and I believe all result from empathy. Feeling the difficulty, pain, hardships and struggles that a fellow human being feels. They aren't simply sympathising, which of course can be a comfort and is sometimes what is needed, but in all of these cases the act of empathising and the transformation of that into action brought about great and immeasurable change and improvement.

Crucially I think it isn't necessarily about knowing someone and choosing to help a friend or relative. I would hope that we would all do that. But I doubt Elizabeth Fry had lots of her friends in Newgate Prison and it's not that everyone who gives money to help those in Nepal knows someone directly affected. The act of empathising with another human being whom you owe nothing to and may never meet or see again, the act of choosing not to ignore and walk away, this is the essence and importance of empathy.

I still feel a twinge of despair to think on the person recording the paramedics for whatever their reason and only hope that those that encourage others in acts of suicide have a quiet moment where they look in the mirror and feel truly sick and ashamed. But I do believe that at the core of people is a capacity for empathy. My inspirational creative writing teacher, the novelist and ghost-writer Lynne Barrett-Lee, talks of empathy being a key reason why people read and inspires the compulsion to write. I wholeheartedly agree. I do both so that I can seek to understand what my fellow human being experiences and feels. I need to cling to the belief that we are all capable of empathy. I need to believe that on occasion we will all act on this, displaying both small and great acts of empathy as anything else really is too bleak to contemplate.