The thought of someone being unable to meet his or her basic needs--the itch that needs to be scratched, the wings that need to be spread, the stomach that needs to be fed, the bladder that needs to be emptied--it's like a burr under my tail. I can't bloody stand it. The dog who is left home for ten hours (and there are a lot of them, left by otherwise "good" people) is left in anxiety, boredom, and an aching need to go to the bathroom. For some reason, I feel their pain. Way too much.
Who put that there in me? I sort of wish they'd get it out: I often feel like the character played by Andie MacDowell in sex, lies and videotape. She sits in her shrink's office while her life falls apart, and she frets about the garbage barges denied landfall, forced to circle endlessly without having their basic needs (unloading) met. Displacement? Yeah, sure. In the sense that all empathy is displacement.
Empathy is two burrs under two tails: one a real one, the other a phantom pain borrowed by the brain with an imagination, and a history of having known burrs.
One of the great pleasures of parenthood is eavesdropping on childish conversations. Children's belief that grownups aren't somehow human--I remember that I myself had no conception what those tall, bossy beings actually were; I only knew they sure weren't me--causes them to speak to their friends as if you weren't there. Maybe you're not. But the other day, I was privy to an extraordinary discussion. An eight-year-old (guess whose) was somberly lecturing his six-year-old compatriot on the nature of empathy. He was reaching for an example. "Well, it's like when I see a horse pulling a plow. It makes me feel tired."
In that moment, I thought, If he never advances beyond this, he will have attained something so few on this earth ever do. I felt the breath taken from me.
Then the six-year-old noticed I was in fact there. He returned the wind to my lungs. "Melissa, when you get old and die I'll be sad." Well, that'll make me feel better. He helpfully added, "I always feel that way when someone who has given me something gets sick." For an elaboration of empathy--not to mention a forceful reminder that yet another birthday is about to beat the door down, and it's not my usual 39th again, either--you don't get truer than that.
Why does the individual evolutionary tree have two branches, one leading to an ability to feel others' pain as one's own; the other to a blithe ignorance that, say, permits someone to leave their dog untended, or to look at plastic-wrapped trays of red matter in the grocery case and see only plastic-wrapped trays of red matter? What made my son feel the weariness of the workhorse in his own muscles?
Psychology has complete explanations, of course. But I am looking at this from the point of view of the only religion that matters, the only one that makes any sense: the church of compassion. I am looking at it from the point of view of Nelly, who after a day running around in the woods, and some yogurt and eggs, and some tossed sticks, and some unspoken conversation with a pinup of an Aussie, and some trips outside to empty her bladder, has made a perfect oval of herself on a chair in front of the woodstove. I can feel it when I look at her. And this happiness, hers, is mine.