My siblings and I were latchkey kids growing up. Our parents were often at work before we left for school and didn’t come home until after we’d already been there. It was a different world back then. The Internet hadn’t taken hold and convinced every parent that leaving their children unattended in the house guaranteed that they would be kidnapped and murdered. Likewise, physical punishment still existed and the fear of damaging anything in the houses of Mom or Dad was very real. As such, siblings were left in the charge of the oldest sibling. When I was about eleven, my oldest sister was left in charge of myself and my youngest sister, age two. Just as I walked into the living room, I saw my youngest sister had climbed up over the back of the couch, perching precariously on the few inches the furniture provided. I looked to my oldest sister, age 16, who was engrossed in whatever terrible soap opera was on the television at the time. My bet is on One Life to Live. Hope and Bo, I still love you. Anyway, oldest sister wasn’t paying attention and youngest sister toppled over the back of the couch, wedging herself between the furniture and the window. In those few seconds, I was overwhelmed with emotions I didn’t understand. I felt startling fear. The kind of fear you would feel if a cobra suddenly lashed out at you from a seemingly innocent pile of laundry. I felt helplessness and the panic that comes with it. I burst into tears immediately from pain I didn’t physically feel. I felt embarrassment and self-disappointment. All those sensations hit me so quickly that all I could do was start yelling at my oldest sister while we pulled our youngest sister out of her predicament. I was unreasonably furious. Youngest sister was not seriously injured. Oldest sister was upset. And I couldn’t stop myself from shouting like a madman.
The shouting had burst out of me because I was an eleven year old boy who had just experienced his first process of powerful empathy and had no other way to express the torrent of emotions. I had actually felt my youngest sister’s fear and helplessness. I was also feeling my oldest sister’s embarrassment and self-disappointment for not paying attention for just a moment. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as:
- The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.
- The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
The Latin roots of the word are broken down with “em” meaning “in” and “pathos” meaning “feeling.” The word literally means “in feeling.” Some of my cold-hearted coworkers like to claim that I’m sensitive. They claim that I get “in my feelings.” Don’t get me wrong. I have never and will never break down in tears at work. They’re referring to the fact that I, a man, have two cats named after Grey’s Anatomy characters. They know very well the story of me tearing up once to a Snuggles commercial. And, yes, I will openly discuss incredible shows like This Is Us while simultaneously having nearly zero knowledge of any sporting event on the television in the bar. It doesn’t help that I say phrases like, “I’m a man” after being called sensitive. Me thinks one doth protest too much.
Honestly, it’s a little sad that someone being “in their feelings” is used as an insult. Empathy is a tool for survival. Visit the maternity ward and observe the newborns. One newborn will cry and it will set off a chain reaction of the other newborns crying. Newborn babies feel empathy for one another. If a parent is stressed out, a baby will often pick up on this and cry harder. As a mouthy, fat kid growing up, the ability to read and incorporate the emotions of others saved me from crossing the line and getting my ass kicked more times than I did. One of my brothers once did the whole silent-mock-mouth-movement to our dad when he didn’t think Dad was looking after a particularly vicious lecture to both of us. Empathy allowed me to quickly pick up on how the situation was about to escalate. I moved out of the way a second before my brother went airborne. I like to think that I can pick up on a woman’s emotions fairly quickly. That’s really just a confusing and horrific burden. If it’s that time of the month or if she’s pregnant, buckle up, buttercup.
There are two types of empathy. The first type, cognitive, is possessed by almost anyone other than a sociopath. It’s the ability to relate and understand another’s emotions. It’s conscious. It’s what brings about sympathy. “I don’t have to walk in your shoes to relate to your plight.” I can see the homeless man with a sign on the street by Wal-Mart and feel sympathy for him. I can relate to how awful that must be. I can imagine the embarrassment of standing in front of people and asking for help. We understand and relate to him, but we don’t actually feel his emotions. The second type of empathy, affective, is subconscious. With affective empathy, we can actually experience the sensations, emotions, and feelings of another. We mirror those things within ourselves, sometimes bringing out physical manifestations such as tears. The neural pain circuits in our brains are actually triggered. This is why we cry when we see a young girl surprised by her father who has been deployed overseas for a year. This is why we cry at weddings. We can subconsciously feel the emotions and feelings of that father, that daughter, and the bride and groom.
There is the saying, “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Forget walking in their shoes. Try walking beside them. Look at a mother’s face while she holds a crying baby. Talk to an elderly person about the loss of a significant other. Breathe in the belly-laughs of two children cackling at nonsense. Ask your spouse to tell you about a powerful childhood memory. We have become a society that communicates through emojis and clicks on tablet screens. Condolences are given through circular frowny faces and trite clichés about thoughts and prayers. Couples sit at dinner and never make eye contact while playing with their phones. Children can’t vocalize how their days were because their parents have lost the ability to translate emotion. Relationships fail more often than not because the most basic emotional cues are indecipherable to the members of a couple. We need to put away our cameras and capture moments in our minds. This world is full of beauty and anger and elation and pain. I want to feel it all. To be human is to be “in our feelings.”