Last week my best friend from college came to visit, one Ms. Lynn J. Vollbrecht. She currently lives in Beloit, Wisconsin, the town we went to school in, 2,000 miles away from Juneau. She came back to Juneau with me the summer after we graduated and spent nine months here. Since then she’s come back to visit us each year for a week. This means that the bulk of our friendship is maintained by phone and by the letters she sends Andrew and I.
During her visit we had a couple of those conversations that people in love always seem to have, conversations about how much they love each other, what kind of love they have, how wonderful love is, and yadda yadda yadda. The kinds of conversations that make you feel like you’re going to burst from how full of affection you are. But we also spent time talking about the nature of friendship.
I’ve been thinking more about this. Not just about friendship, but the nature of human relationships on a grand scale. What is it that I value in other people, what is the seed of the belief that a person is a good person. Is it love? Humor? Thoughtfulness? Respect?
Last night, getting into bed, I figured it out.
em•pa•thy – noun
1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.
It seems to me that there is no greater natural emotional response to the world. And how deep that response is! Even going back to our earliest days on this planet, there is no way that we could’ve survived without empathy. I’m going deer hunting this weekend and I know that all of my energy will be focused on empathizing with my prey. All my stillness and focus directed towards one purpose, the reaching out of my self towards that animal, the attempt to see the forest as a deer would, listen as a deer would, walk as a deer would.
I believe that every person’s best self evolves from the ability to empathize, and it’s not something that requires money, or education, or anything other than the desire to reach out to another person or thing.
But, the flipside, is that I find it almost impossible to understand (or empathize) with people who don’t or can’t empathize with others. That kind of existence seems like it would be very lonely, surface, and dark. And I imagine that this inability to bend, to attempt to extend yourself, must be the root of all horrors. I’ve been reading some accounts of soldiers with PTSD and part of that pain seems to come from the attempt, and failure, to suppress empathy in an environment in which to empathize means to fail at your purpose.
I believe that we all have a natural desire to empathize, and call me a hopeless optimist, but I think this is why I’ve always believed that people are naturally-deep-down good.