One of the great lessons of life is learning about empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy. Empathy is the capacity to recognize and share feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by Titchener as an attempt to translate the German word “Einfühlungsvermögen.” Edward Bradford Titchener, D.Sc., Ph.D., LL.D., Litt.D. (1867-1927), was a British psychologist who is best known for creating his version of psychology that described the structure of the mind; structuralism. He created what was at that time the largest doctoral program in the United States after becoming a professor at Cornell University, (Go Big Red!), and his first graduate student, Margaret Floy Washburn, became the first woman to be granted a PhD in psychology (1894).
Empathy is distinct from sympathy, pity, and emotional contagion. Sympathy or empathic concern is the feeling of compassion or concern for another, the wish to see them better off or happier. Pity is feeling that another is in trouble and in need of help as they cannot fix their problems themselves, often described as “feeling sorry” for someone.
To give the term some “clothing, consider the words of George Washington Carver, (1864-1943), who was a famous African-American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor. When asked to summarize his approach to life he created a virtually perfect description of empathy. To wit: “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.”
Would that we all might strive to emulate that example.
***This article was written by one of our contributing writers: Malcolm Noden