Even an infant, when they hear another baby cry, will begin to cry. That is just the first step in developing our capacity to understand and identify with others. Empathy is, figuratively, walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and is the foundation of kindness. It is through understanding and sharing another’s feelings that we can then behave toward them in the way that we would ourselves want to be treated (or even better than we’d treat ourselves.)
Without being sensitive to the needs and emotions of others, our relationships are a facade. Empathy allows us to form genuine bonds. Narcissists, for example, have a poorly developed sense of empathy and tend to only think of their own feelings as being important. This makes their interactions with others superficial and largely unfulfilling for everyone involved. It is so important to catch ourselves when we display such behaviors, such as selfish thoughts, or begin to keep score in our relationships. When we shift our focus away from giving and empathy, we begin to grow our feelings of lack and resentment. What we give our energy to grows.
Interestingly and not all that surprising, our bodies are built for empathy. In our prefrontal cortex we have neurons that fire when we throw a ball, for example. Those same neurons fire when we see someone else throwing a ball. The reaction is the same, just as if we had thrown the ball ourselves. These are called ‘mirror neurons’ or ‘empathy neurons’ and scientists think that this mirroring is the biological basis of empathy.
Empathy leads to compassion, Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” The kabbalists (and my husband) have a lot to say on the topic of compassion. Kabbalah teaches that only a person who assumes part of the pain of the world will get to experience ultimate joy. Divorcing ourselves from feeling compassion also divorces us from feeling the Light of the Creator.
It’s not just an altruistic thing to do, compassion is spiritual work leading to great spiritual growth. Our love and empathy have the power to alleviate the suffering of others, and that is no small thing. It is said that as a young man, Moses went out daily among the enslaved Israelites. Moses’ compassion was the first necessary step that made the exodus from Egypt possible. Instead, he could have ignored their pain and stayed in pleasant distractions within the palace.
There is a parable about a man whose son was given a terminal diagnosis. Not wanting to accept this as fact, he decided to visit his teacher. The man visited the kabbalist and they prayed together. With deep sadness, the kabbalist told the man that there was, in fact, nothing anyone could do. Heartbroken, the man rode away.
As soon as the student left, the kabbalist realized that there was something that he could do. He galloped after the man, overtaking him on the road. The man stopped and the kabbalist explained, “I realized after you left that if I can’t help your son, the least I can do is cry with you.” And they sat down side by side on the road and cried together. This is the essence of compassion, to feel the pain of others just as deeply as if it were your own, because on a spiritual level, all the pain in the world is shared. (The parable ends with the boy being healed, but the point here is in going out of our way to show compassion.)
Having true compassion calls for a complete release of all judgments – and oh how often we judge. Without judgment, true compassion can be felt for those that you would not have found it possible – those who cheat, steal, harm others, who are mean-spirited, stingy or embittered. You may be asking yourself why you would want to try to feel compassion for people like that, but who among us is perfect? And what happened in their lives that made them become that way? The scary truth is that we have more in common with people like that than we want to believe — meaning that we all have free will. At any given moment we choose to connect and make choices that are from our soul (the sharing aspect of ourselves) or our ego (the negative aspect that connects to the desire to receive for the self alone). “Make no judgments where you have no compassion.” -Anne McCaffrey
Every day is full of opportunities to show compassion and kindness. If we want to end the suffering in the world around us, then we have to take personal responsibility for that suffering. There is a saying, “Treat everyone with kindness, even those who are rude to you — not because they are kind, but because you are.” There really are endless opportunities presented to us each day and we can all push ourselves to be kinder, to be more open and less selfish with the people in our lives.
“Use your words for kindness, for love and for wisdom. These are the things that have the power to turn a life completely around.” -Karen Berg
Thought Into Action
When challenges arise, if you have any question as to what course to take, always err on the side of kindness.