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Empathy


(I wrote this on October 20, 2003)

Empathy, from the Greek word meaning passion.

1) The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.

2) 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; also: the capacity for this.

I've occasionally wondered the extent to which my own apparent empathy for [object X] is a projection of my own imagined experience upon that object, versus a true understanding of that object. In some cases, I'm able to verify my empathy. More typically, I'm not.

I feel as though I have a large capacity for putting myself in the shoes of other people. But this could be a self-serving mirage, in which I'm expecting people to react like I would, in which I'm congratulating myself for supposedly caring about others. Or, worse, in which I'm neglecting my own needs and feelings by distracting myself with the apparent needs and feelings of others. Other people and animals can take advantage of my empathy, by presenting themselves in ways that lead me to believe certain things (rightly or wrongly) about their internal states.

Empathy is one of the foundations of human society -- treating each other fairly, the rule of law, charity, the bonds of family, friendship, and community. For some people, their empathy extends to animals, plants, or the ecosystem as a whole. I doubt anybody's empathy is perfectly valid or reliable, and I wonder the extent to which each person's empathy (or lack of it) is a way of imposing his own beliefs and fears upon those he encounters or imagines.


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