Upon reflection on my previous article The difficulty of being good, I was reminded of another article which I wrote for USB’s Agenda magazine in October 2011, entitled: Homo empaThicus. A few of the observations I made there link very well with the issue around morality and being morally good. Please journey with me as I retrace some of my thoughts from that article.
Firstly let’s consider for a moment the scientific label given to human beings, Homo sapiens (wise man/ape). However, Homo sapiens are thinking beings and within our social nature lies our affective, loving ability, which we observe and experience in our daily lives through small acts of kindness – offered to or by us. This is where empathy, or empaThicus, enters the stage.
EmpaThicus is a word with a creative ‘T’, a letter that offers a vertical and horizontal view of our identity. Vertically, we develop, from infancy, a distinct personality and we become aware of ourselves as a discrete and separate person from others. However, this vertical development on its own brings with it the potential danger of the individual threatening the social collective of which we all are part. The developed individuality really only offers meaning in the context of horizontal development: viz. being able to live and move among others; being able to see and think differently from others, yet, able to engage in a meaningful dialogue with others, understanding that our individuality has significance only among others.
So what exactly is empathy? In very simple terms it is our understanding of how it is for that other person, being able to feel the emotions of another person based on our willingness to understand the other’s position and situation.
What value does empathy offer us? It is the saving grace of any society. No society is sustainable without empathy. A society cannot survive if everyone is only caring for him or herself. The ability and the willingness to feel for others to the extent of the other ‘feeling felt’ is in fact the key to the survival of Homo sapiens as Homo empaThicus.
A society is built on relationships and the quality thereof hinges on the presence of empathy. Without it, we may still stay together but then merely as Homo averiticus – only aware of each other’s bodies, consumed by self-interest and greed, and with no sense of the inner life of others, no sense of that which makes us human, Homo empaThicus.
I think we need to reflect that one way of shaping our society is by embracing the essence of empathy and considering what it could be like to walk in someone else’s shoes, before we make quick judgements.
Frik Landman is CEO of USB Executive Development (USB-ED).