When I was a teenager, I couldn’t get enough of John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” The book seems a bit florid now, but then it felt charged with impact, streaming with light. For the uninitiated, it’s an epic reprise of the Cain and Abel story with two sets of brothers named, pointedly, Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron, and a meditation on the nature of good and evil. At least that’s how I read it.
But now that I’ve cut my way through seven books on empathy, I think “East of Eden” — plus virtually all novels and, why not, life itself — should be plotted along a bell curve of empatheia. It’s from the Greek, as in “em” (into) and “pathos” (feeling). How much can we “feel into” each other’s experience? Is empathy what makes us human? What happens when we can’t empathize — or won’t?
Steinbeck explores the far end of the curve with a character named Cathy Ames. She seems torn from a modern headline — manipulative, murderous, the snake in this garden, and utterly lacking in empathy. This is a book steeped in biblical themes and cadences, but Steinbeck turns to science to explain her: “[I]f a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?”
That question, and more, figures into “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty” (Basic, 2011). Author Simon Baron-Cohen goes so far as to define evil: It’s “the erosion of empathy.” Such erosion gives you Cathy Ames on a small scale and Adolph Hitler on a mammoth one. Baron-Cohen fishes from recent discoveries in neuroscience here; you can measure empathy, he says. And so he walks us through 10 identifiable “empathy” centers in the brain and there, smack on the page, is the bell curve of empathy distribution.
His book knocked me out, in middle age, as “East of Eden” did so long ago. I found myself mapping where various friends, colleagues, and family members fell on the curve, via his descriptions of types. I only know a few “zero-negatives,” for instance, but they’ve cut a swath. This designation applies to psychopaths, narcissists, and borderline personalities — a chilling 50 percent of those in prison have an antisocial personality disorder.
On the zero-positive side are those on the autism spectrum; they also lack empathy, as far as being able to “see” into another’s mind. But they’re so attuned to rules and fairness, their disability doesn’t translate into harm to others. The “zeroes” have this in common, though: If you lack empathy, you also lack insight into yourself.
The rest of us exhibit various levels of empathy, but we all operate on a “dimmer switch,” says Baron-Cohen. Women are statistically more empathic than men, those in the humanities more than those in the sciences. But no matter where we fall on the curve, empathy is transient; we feel a friend’s pain one day but maybe not the next if we’re distracted or self-involved.
Many of my books today see empathy as the magic elixir. As Baron-Cohen writes: “Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.” J.D. Trout doesn’t buy it, though. Empathy is too capricious, and his “Why Empathy Matters: The Science and Psychology of Better Judgment” (Penguin, 2009) points out the spanners in the works.
Our reactions to human suffering are “momentary and provincial,” Trout says. We send thousands of stuffed animals to Newtown, Conn, for instance, but ignore less publicized violent deaths. Even worse: By favoring the concrete personal response over the abstract political solution, we inadvertently nourish the problem. “Humans are not short on empathy,” Trout writes. “We simply overindulge our sloppy responses to human suffering.”
Trout thinks that for empathy to work wonders, it must be systematized. He cites the Amish. They habitually offer interest-free loans for young farmers and multigenerational housing for the elderly. He admires the “compassionate thoughtlessness” in these cultural practices: “After all, sustained thoughtfulness regularly leads to inaction, a kind of decision paralysis.”
Jeremy Rifkin sees Trout and raises him: He wants empathy to go viral to save the very planet itself. “The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis” (Tarcher, 2009) offers a sweeping biological-social-psychological history of empathy. One minute, we’re on attachment theory, the next mirror neurons, and then it’s on to why empathy made sense in our hunter-gatherer past (we had to connect for self-protection), and how globalization requires us to spread our empathy beyond tribal and national lines. We get more empathic, he says, or we die.
The crux here involves who, exactly, gets our empathy. For climate change, the recipients may be too abstract for us, because we have to identify with how future generations will feel if we wreck their Earth. In the meantime, we have to override our empathy for our neighbors who lose jobs in the eco-transition. In short, we all have our own hierarchy of empathy.
In publishing these days, empathy is the hot emotion. Part of this comes from politics (President Obama has lamented the “empathy deficit”) and part from a growing body of “hard science of this soft feeling,” to cite Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry. Their “Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered” (Morrow, 2010) shuttles from Adam Smith to the MIT Media Lab to D.H. Lawrence to explore how “there is a bias in our neurobiology that pulls us to be empathic.” For a naked, clawless, not-so-sharp-toothed species, the only way to survive was to cooperate. Our ability to “read other people’s intentions and to care about their plight” made us thrive. But, spoiler: Screen technology is messing with our empathic birthright.
“Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child” (The Experiment, 2005) shows how you can teach it. Author Mary Gordon founded the “Roots of Empathy” school program in Toronto, which has jumped to Japan, the United States, and more. She’s all about inculcating a “literacy of feeling.” How so? Mostly, baby visits. Through the school year, a mother and baby come to a classroom, and the children observe them in action. For each infant cry or bout of exploration, or clinginess, the children learn to recognize and investigate the emotions on display. Then teachers help them reflect on what they’ve seen — and how it applies to their own “inner mental sea.’’
Frans de Waal, the renowned primatologist, goes beyond the human in “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society” (Three Rivers Press, 2009). He says that “[t]oo many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection.” In other words, it’s not all dog-eat-dog, as we see from his moving examples of elephants in mourning and healthy apes tending wounded ones. The point is this: Empathy is not just second nature to us.
All these books enlighten. But Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams: Essays” (Graywolf, 2014) is the loveliest read. In lucid, big-hearted prose, she ambles through many topics, such as her own losses and what it’s like to play-act a patient in order to train medical students to be empathic. “Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination,” she writes. Yes. You have to ask — or read about — what it’s like to be someone else. And as with anything human, empathy has its limits. Listen to Jamison again: “Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.” I think she means that we can’t return to Eden. But we can live east of it.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.