Some thoughts on empathy


In the book “The Family of Man,” which contains more than 500 photos exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955, a two-page spread shows individuals by themselves, along with the text, “I am alone with the beating of my heart.”

While all of us are part of the family of humankind, each of us ultimately is a totally separate creature. Other people cannot experience the beating of one’s own heart or anything else occurring within our individual bodies and minds.

At the same time, most of us feel connected to other people, and believe we understand to a great degree the sorts of feelings that others experience, because as humans, we share most of those feelings.

We often nod in agreement when others express their thoughts as well. That’s why we talk about empathy and the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others, as Michelle Obama noted in her speech at the virtual Democratic National Convention recently.

For all practical purposes, those of us who possess empathy can do that. But I believe that we must recognize the limits of our ability to understand what others are feeling and thinking, and not assume that we truly know how they feel or, sometimes, fully understand what they think.

I believe we cannot truly know how other people experience the world, even in terms of their senses — and partly for that reason, completely understanding the way others feel and think, and the conclusions they come to may often be beyond us.

Take the sense of taste. In 1931, a DuPont chemist accidentally discovered that the compound phenylthiocarbamide (referred to as PTC) tastes bitter to some people, while others find it tasteless. I don’t know of things we eat that have that property, but there is no doubt that people taste things differently — after all, the same food that delights the taste buds of some people, disgusts others.

There really is no way for us to know precisely what another person is tasting. That came home to me years ago when I read about two ethnobotanists who were studying the fruits eaten by some tribespeople living in a tropical part of the globe. When each scientist tasted a fruit previously unknown to them, one compared the taste to that of a peach, and the other said it reminded him of a pineapple. (Those are probably not the fruits they mentioned, but I do remember that they cited fruits with distinctly different tastes.)

Certainly, people feel physical pain differently. The chart that medical professionals came up with for ranking pain on a scale of one to 10 demonstrates that fact every day. A cramp I’ve had a couple of times in one of my feet felt more unbearable to me than the pain of my kidney stone or even labor pains, but I imagine many others would rate each of those pains differently.

Emotions, too, have physical components, but how can any of us know exactly what another person is feeling when, say, consumed by crushing grief or distracted by raging fury or besotted by love? We can only take empathetic guesses.

I’ve been thinking about this partly because of disagreements my sister and I have had via email about the massive protests that were taking place in Thailand — where my sister lives — and in Hong Kong, where one of her daughters lives. My sister professes to believe that benevolent dictatorships are, in all cases, superior to democracies.

She admits that her views stem from her personal circumstances and those of her daughter, but she dismisses the protesters as clueless and spoiled.

I understand wanting to avoid societal upheaval for personal — i.e., selfish — reasons, but I truly cannot understand her viewing the Chinese government as benevolent, or the Thai government — ruled by military men who took over in a coup, and ostensibly headed by a hedonist king who spends almost all his time in Germany — as acceptable.

I won’t even mention here her views of Vladimir Putin, which horrify me and which, similarly, I simply can’t understand. It’s good, though, that I am reminded how little I can understand the thinking of so many people whose ideas drastically oppose mine.

This is especially true now, when so many people get all their news from sources that broadcast not facts, but what the Trump administration’s spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway has labeled “alternative facts.” I cannot imagine how I can understand the thinking of folks whose “facts” bear no resemblance to what I believe to be true.

One final thought. I suspect that some of us have met women like the two I used to know, each of whom assured me that she understood her husband so well — and felt so closely connected to him in every way — that she routinely would finish her husband’s sentences.

After many years of marriage, each husband told his wife — to her total astonishment and horror — that he had fallen in love with someone else. And each man promptly moved out, never to return.

How well did these women really know their husbands?

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Miriam Helbok,