On a crisp, bright morning in San Francisco, as I stood apart from the semi-circular line of tourists who waited to board the cable car at the Powell/Mason turntable, I saw a young woman exit a black car that had stopped in the Market Street bicycle lane. She got out of the car and walked toward me.
I saw her piercings as she walked – black studs in her nose and lower lip, a small gold hoop in the corner of her left eye. Short, dark hair, black t-shirt, stained denim skirt, black Chuck Taylor high-tops. Pasty white skin, thick black eye shadow.
Staring straight into my eyes, she walked in my direction. She didn’t stop, though. As she passed – close enough to whisper – she looked me in the eyes and told me in a low, clear voice:
“You don’t love us.”
She broke eye contact and walked on. I stood there and watched her melt into the crowd of tourists, past the cable car turntable, up Powell Street, on toward Union Square and back into her Gothic oblivion.
It didn’t even occur to me to try to contradict her.
She was right, though. I didn’t love her.
Yet, over the years, a decade and more, I have replayed that scene in my mind so many times that even the memory flickers, like an old film exposed far too often to the projector’s hot light. It’s not my most vivid memory, or anywhere near my most relevant.
Those would be things like, you know, our wedding in Boston, the births of our two sons, waking up healthy after emergency angioplasty … life-altering or live-saving events. My Memories, with a capital M.
Yet, that moment in San Francisco has stayed with me. There was no reason for that particular young woman or her peculiar declaration to stand out in a four-decade-long swirl of memories. You don’t love us, she said. But …
I am her. And so are you. And so is everyone you know, and everyone you ever have known or ever will know. And she is you. She is my wife, my sons, my mother and father, everything I have ever loved or ever will love. She is every word I’ve ever written or will write or will read, every tear I’ve shed and every smile I’ve smiled. She is my everything and she is your everything, too. You don’t have to love someone, or even know their name – or even know they are alive a decade after a fleeting encounter on a bright cool morning – for all of that to be true.
This is empathy.
It is remembering every detail about the girl on the street who looked into your soul and walked right on past and disappeared forever into the crowd. It is four words – you don’t love us – carved into your cortex like a hieroglyph on a temple wall, taunting you with its complex simplicity.
It’s the visceral response we feel toward a grieving father when we see photographs of his smiling little boy, gone now, carefully holding up with just the tips of his fingers a hand-lettered sign that reads, “No more hurting people. Peace.” It’s the overwhelming urge to weep, the unavoidable shudder, the inexorable need to make physical contact with our small children after we read or hear accounts of a deadly day on the first-grade wing of an elementary school in Connecticut.
It’s running toward the bomb blast to see if there’s anything you can do to help those who were in it. It’s the physical inability to sit through a movie because some people you never met were gunned down during the midnight premier in a theater a thousand miles away.
It’s the spark and flutter of what I guess scientists these days are calling mirror neurons, which fire off signals that make us unconsciously reproduce emotions we witness – or imagine we witness – being expressed by someone else.
Evidently, some of us have more active mirror neurons than others.
Did you know that the word empathy didn’t enter the English language until the early 1900s? It was introduced by psychologist (and Oxford man) Edward B. Titchener as a translation of the German term einfühlung (“in” the “feeling”), which itself was a loose translation of the Greek term empatheia (“in” “pathos”), having to do with art appreciation. I didn’t know any of that, either, until I looked it up.
Empathy. It’s the unspoken recognition of the knowledge that we’re all going to die. It’s the shared, and the sharing. It’s the point in space and time where “we” intersect “they.”
It’s the truth behind you don’t love us.
And that truth is this …
Even now, so many years later, I want to run after that Goth girl in San Francisco and catch up to her in the crowd, and tell her that she’s right, that I don’t love her or anyone else in her life. But so what? I don’t have to love you. You still matter to me because the part of you inside that makes you human is inside me, too, and I love that part of both of us and all of us because that’s what life is. It’s what being alive is.
Empathy is life itself, acknowledging its presence and luminosity in the other.
This is the latest entry in the Word of the Week series. For details and earlier entries, click here. And please, if you like, take a moment to share in the comments section what the word empathy means to you.