When this question first puzzled me weeks ago, I didn’t realize how many assumptions it holds. That empathy is a gift to the person whose feelings (real or imagined) one feels vicariously. That it is always desirable, at least to that person. That it is either earned by merit or a basic human right. The more I think about it, the more complicated it gets.
The capacity for empathy is innate, one of many unconscious ways we copy those we interact with. Babies cry when they hear a baby cry. Dogs bark when they hear a dog bark. Empathy helps us learn from each other’s experiences, predict others’ behavior, and cooperate. In evolutionary terms, passing on the relevant genes depends more on empathy’s survival value for empathic individuals and communities than for the people whose feelings are mirrored.
Even so, empathy is not always helpful. I don’t want to empathize with the hater or promoter of unfounded fear. Parents calm an anxious child by not getting anxious themselves. I’d prefer my surgeon pain-free and focused, even when I’m distracted by pain. Caring, yes. Understanding, yes. Recognizing another’s humanity, yes. But whether or not empathy is appropriate in any particular case may have nothing to do with deserving.
Image: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Les Noisettes (The Nut Gatherers), 1882. Detroit Institute of Arts.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.