What IS empathy? It’s 1) the ability to put oneself in the shoes of others, to see the world as they see it; 2) to feel events–particularly painful events—as others feel them; and 3) to manage one’s own emotional responses to pain and grief in others so that instead of being overwhelmed, one can to be helpful.
In a world beset by competition and conflict, empathy can help alleviate tendencies to be violent and inhumane towards others, particularly others labeled as dangerous and less than human.
What feeds the roots of empathy? One answer is: literature, specifically literature demonstrating the ways that pain, fear, love, joy, and a remarkable range of human reactions unite all of humanity, regardless of the divisive little categories like age, sex, religion, and ethnicity that we shove people into.
One such book is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, based on Rmarque’s experiences as a German soldier in World War I. I first read the novel my sophomore year in high school. At that naïve age, I found myself stunned to recognize that the characters who were wringing my heart were Germans, German boys and men of the type who attacked our boys and men in two world wars. Germans, yet so human, so vulnerable, so inherently good.
Read or reread the book. How could anyone not empathize with Remarque’s character Paul Bäumer, a boy who is himself engulfed in empathy–and compassion– after witnessing the death of a French soldier whom he has stabbed:
“‘But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?'” All Quiet on the Western Front, Chapter 9, p. 223.