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'Empathic Civilization' Excerpt: Homo-Empathicus, The Big Story That Historians Missed

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 04/06/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:25 PM ET

Empathic Civilization

The following is an excerpt from the HuffPost book club pick for February, Jeremy Rifkin's "The Empathic Civilization".

Historians, by and large, write about social conflict and wars, great heroes and evil wrongdoers, technological progress and the exercise of power, economic injustices and the redress of social grievances. When historians touch on philosophy, it is usually in relationship to the disposition of power. Rarely do we hear of the other side of the human experience that speaks to our deeply social nature and the evolution and extension of human affection and its impact on culture and society.

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel once remarked that happiness is "the blank pages of history" because they are "periods of harmony." Happy people generally live out their existence in the "microworld" of close familial relations and extended social affiliations.

History, on the other hand, is more often than not made by the disgruntled and discontented, the angry and rebellious--those interested in exercising authority and exploiting others and their victims, interested in righting wrongs and restoring justice. By this reckoning, much of the history that is written is about the pathology of power.

Perhaps that is why, when we come to think about human nature, we have such a bleak analysis. Our collective memory is measured in terms of crises and calamities, harrowing injustices, and terrifying episodes of brutality inflicted on each other and our fellow creatures. But if these were the defining elements of human experience, we would have perished as a species long ago.

All of which raises the question "Why have we come to think of life in such dire terms?" The answer is that tales of misdeeds and woe surprise us. They are unexpected and, therefore, trigger alarm and heighten our interest. That is because such events are novel and not the norm, but they are newsworthy and for that reason they are the stuff of history. Today, our twenty-four hour cable TV news shows become the chroniclers of the accounts of pathological behavior, bombarding us with tales of horror and woe.

The everyday world is quite different. Although life as it's lived on the ground, close to home, is peppered with suffering, stresses, injustices, and foul play, it is, for the most part, lived out in hundreds of small acts of kindness and generosity. Comfort and compassion between people creates goodwill, establishes the bonds of sociality, and gives joy to people's lives. Much of our daily interaction with our fellow human beings is empathic because that is our core nature. Empathy is the very means by which we create social life and advance civilization. In short, it is the extraordinary evolution of empathic consciousness that is the quintessential underlying story of human history, even if it has not been given the serious attention it deserves by our historians.

Empathic distress is as old as our species and is traceable far back into our ancestral past, to our link with our primate relatives and, before them, our mammalian ancestors. It is only very recently, however, that biologists and cognitive scientists have begun to discover primitive behavioral manifestations of empathy throughout the mammalian kingdom, among animals that nurture their young. They report that primates, and especially humans, with our more developed neocortex, are particularly wired for empathy.

Without a well-developed concept of selfhood, however, mature empathic expression would be impossible. Child development researchers have long noted that infants as young as one or two days old are able to identify the cries of other newborns and will cry in return, in what is called rudimentary empathetic distress. That's because the empathic predisposition is embedded into our biology. But the real sense of empathic extension doesn't begin to appear until the age of eighteen months to two and a half years, when the infant begins to develop a sense of self and other. In other words, it is only when the infant is able to understand that someone else exists as a separate being from himself that he is able to experience the others' condition as if it were his own and respond with the appropriate comfort.

In studies, two-year-old children will often wince in discomfort at the sight of another child's suffering and come over to him to share a toy, or cuddle, or bring him over to their own mother for assistance. The extent to which empathetic consciousness develops, broadens, and deepens during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, depends on early parenting behavior--which psychologists call attachment--as well as the values and worldview of the culture one is embedded in and the potential exposure to others.

Unlike sympathy, which is more passive, empathy conjures up active engagement--the willingness of an observer to become part of another's experience, to share the feeling of that experience.

Empathy is essentially an emotional state with a cognitive component. The empathic observer doesn't lose his sense of self and fuse into the other's experience, nor does he coolly and objectively read the experience of the other as a way of gathering information that could be used to foster his own self interest. Rather, as psychology professor Martin L. Hoffman suggests, empathy runs deeper. He defines empathy as "the involvement of psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another's situation than with his own situation." Hoffman and others don't discount the role cognition plays--what psychologists call "empathic accuracy." But they are more likely to perceive empathy as a total response to the plight of another person, sparked by a deep emotional sharing of that other person's state, accompanied by a cognitive assessment of the others' present condition and followed by an affective and engaged response to attend to their needs and help ameliorate their suffering.

Empathy is not just reserved for the notion that "I feel your pain," a phrase popularized by former president Bill Clinton and later caricatured in pop culture. One can also empathize with another's joy.

Ofttimes empathizing with another person's joy comes from a deep personal knowledge of their past struggles, making their joy all the more valued and vicariously felt. Another person's empathic embrace can even transform one's own suffering to joy. Carl Rogers put it poignantly:

[W]hen a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense, he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, "Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it's like to be me."

As already mentioned, the awakening sense of selfhood is crucial to the development and extension of empathy. The more individualized and developed the self is, the greater is our sense of our own unique, mortal existence, as well as our existential aloneness and the many challenges we face in the struggle to be and to flourish. It is these very feelings in ourselves that allow us to empathize with similar existential feelings in others.

A heightened empathic sentiment also allows an increasingly individualized population to affiliate with one another in more interdependent, expanded, and integrated social organisms. This is the process that characterizes what we call civilization. Civilization is the detribalization of blood ties and the resocialization of distinct individuals based on associational ties. Empathic extension is the psychological mechanism that makes the conversion and the transition possible. When we say to civilize, we mean to empathize.

We frequently hear political conservatives argue that empathy is a code word for collectivism. They fail to realize that empathic maturity requires a well devolved sense of selfhood and individuality to flourish. Political liberals in turn, are likely to associate "individualism" with uncaring narcissism, again, not realizing that a well formed self identity is required for empathic extension and compassionate behavior.

When one empathizes with another, the experience is an affirmation of his or her existence and a celebration of his or her life. Empathetic moments are the most intensively alive experiences we ever have. We empathize with each other's struggles against death and for life. One acknowledges the whiff of death in another's frailties and vulnerabilities. No one ever empathizes with a perfect being. Supporting and comforting another and coming to his or her aid is an affirmation and celebration of their living being. The shared bond intensifies one's own sense of aliveness because in the empathic act we "transcend" our physical confines and, for a brief period, live in a shared non-corporeal plane that is timeless and that connects us to the life that surrounds us. The more mature our empathic consciousness, the more intimate and universal is our participation with life and the deeper our sense of the layers of reality. Celebrating life means living it robustly with others. Individuals whose empathy is shallow and experiences are limited live life less fully. A solitary life is always a life less lived.

Empathic consciousness would be strangely out of place in either heaven or utopia. Where there is no mortal suffering, there is no empathic bond. Rather than running away from the travails of life, empathic consciousness acknowledges the day to day struggles that come with being human and extends solidarity by acts of compassion.

It should also be noted that where empathic consciousness flourishes, fear of death withers and the compunction to seek otherworldly salvation or earthly utopias wanes. It's perhaps not coincidental that a younger post material generation, while more empathic and spiritual, is less religious and less prone to otherworldly or utopian visions. If one is living an embodied full life of deep participation in the here and the now, there is less likelihood that he or she will dream of finding solace in a perfect state sometime in the distant future.

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