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The Many Faces of Empathy

The Many Faces of Empathy

Empathy is a primitive force that drives social cohesion and enhanced our survival as early humans. Today it touches our lives in many ways, some surprising.

Angus was nervous. It was our first meeting, and he sat restlessly through our introductions.

He is a high achiever. He sailed through his undergraduate studies on a full scholarship, and was recruited to a leading medical school where he earned recognition for clinical competence and academic leadership. He accepted a top fellowship and is busy enhancing his reputation as a caring physician and an incisive scientist.

But today is different. He is struggling with a big question. He is no longer sure that he is on the right professional pathway. Having been so sure for so long, these doubts are deeply disturbing.

Wisely, he has sought an experienced professional coach, where objectivity and guided inquiry will help him navigate this weighty intersection on his beautiful journey.

Halfway through our first meeting, we uncovered a force that has deeply colored his life, and will clearly be important in the big decision he now faces.

Empathy.

We surfaced this powerful gift as we discussed his clinical practice. He recounted the emotions that surface when he helps his sickest patients.

I feel their pain so intensely, Roddy, that sometimes I just have to look away.”

His strong blue eyes filled with rich tears.

As scientists we know a lot about empathy today. We know where it resides in the human brain, and the many associated centers of higher function which integrate it into our modern life. We understand how brain injury can disrupt it, and we know how emotional trauma can affect it.

Empathy is Mother Nature’s gift that enables us to build profound social relationships within our tribes. It is the primal glue that holds us together. When we deeply experience the joy and pain of those we love and live with, we build indestructible bonds that ensure our survival as a tribe, and as a species.

Not all scientists are equally enamored with the positive expression of empathy. Many prominent researchers also identify it to be the root cause of political and racial polarization.

Empathy is at the root of the “us and them” phenomenon. It selectively reinforces intense bonds between close social allies, sometimes leaving “them” on the outside. “They” then become the object of reverse empathy.

Empathy alone doesn’t drive our choices and behavior. For this to happen, we need its close cousin compassion to step up.

Compassion converts feeling into action. It is the difference between the many who walk past the destitute homeless man sleeping in the gutter, and the few good Samaritans who actively reach out.

Mercifully, this ratio also holds true for the activation of reverse empathy. Only a few are inspired to convert it into actions of hatred.

I’m sure that empathy will resurface as we continue to explore Angus’ dilemma.

On the one hand, I know that this powerful gift has driven him to choose a caring profession. He has followed the voice that deeply understands the condition of his patients. On the other hand, I have little doubt that we will soon discover that his empathy has also exaggerated the influence of the well-intended thoughts and desires of teachers, friends and family on his early decisions.

I’m curious to see where this journey takes Angus.

He has a wonderful array of gifts and talents. I am honored to help him explore this daunting conundrum, and look forward to the day when his onward path is again clearly illuminated.

I hope that you will always have the courage to look within where magic happens and dreams come to life.

Have fun,

Roddy