Empathy is uncommon. Empathy cannot be taught. I think empathy is like perfect pitch or left-handedness or blue eyes. Some people are born with empathy. Most people lack it completely yet recognize it and appreciate it. Empathy is also different from sympathy. Everyone can have sympathy; it is a concordance or an agreement. You can sypathize with your brother’s grief without really feeling sorrow. There is a dispatched perspective with sympathy. The sympathizer has a degree of separation. Their hands don’t get dirty. Sympathizing does not hurt. We have all sat quietly comforting another person as they lost it.

Empathy is not so tidy. Empathy is felt at your core. The origin of the word is Greek. From empatheia, from en- “in” + pathos “feeling”. If you have empathy for another person you are literally INSIDE their feelings. This is not a gentle, neat, protected place. To empathize with your sister means you feel everything she feels. You share. It is to truly walk beside another, shouldering their pain or sorrow or fear.

I think about empathy alot, because it is the fundamental component of the ART of medicine. Occasionally a patient will offer high praise by telling me that the reason they like me as their doctor is because I listen. I think all doctors listen. How else will they get a history or gather the details they need to come to a diagnosis? What is being identified is empathy. I know I have this ability. How? Because empathy exacts a toll. I move from room to room, seeing 20 or more people a day, and some days I feel literally beaten up. Not because people are rude or the pace is too fast, but because people are so sad or afraid or angry. They hurt and feel frustrated. I feel it all.

When I was a young doctor, I didn’t have the best shield. I wasn’t grounded. And I was like a sink for all of these people and their suffering. I toughened up quickly. Thankfully, and by sheer Grace, I did not become cynical. But some days I wish I could turn it off. Somedays are especially brutal.

But what is life without this passion? I know no other way, but I cannot image the dullness of not being empathetic. The texture of my relationships would be flatter, less rich, less intense. Indeed, they might hurt less, but they would be less sweet as well.

My kids love this CD by the group, They Might Be Giants, called No! On that CD is a song called “Supertaster“. I think empathy is like being a “superfeeler”. Where as most people identify sad, mad, glad. The “superfeeler” sees nuance: frustration, fear, betrayal, sorrow, grief, pity, angry, bitterness, joy, exhilaration, love, anticipation, desire, affection, regard, respect and so many other shades of emotions. Their emotional world is not monochromatic. It is a prism, capturing all possible refractions of emotions.

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