Lately I've had occasion to think about empathy - its presence, its absence and how it can be cultivated.
Here's a good description of what empathy is all about:
Empathy is the ability to recognize the sentience and suffering in another being. Empathy is the basis of high-level altruism that does not depend on the barter principle. The ethic of empathy is the Golden Rule: treat others, as you would have them treat you. Empathy depends on knowing that the other person feels pain as much as you do or will feel happiness as much as you do if they are well treated. If another human is grieving, you feel their suffering and offer help. If another human is injured, you stop everything to help them and you treat their injured body with care to avoid increasing their pain. This ability to feel the experience of others in your own consciousness is one of the great accomplishments of brain evolution.It strikes me that cultivating and demonstrating empathy toward the other is crucial to living out one of the key promises of the baptismal covenant - that is "to respect the dignity of every human being." (BCP 1979, p. 305)
Here's an excerpt from The Power of Empathy: A Practical Guide to Creating Intimacy, Self-Understanding, and Lasting Love by Arthur P. Ciaramicoli and Katherine Ketcham that I think is key:
Empathy allows us to see the connections between us, making strangers less strange, foreigners less foreign. When we adopt other people's perspectives, we do more than step into their shoes — we use their eyes, we borrow their skin, we feel their hearts beating within us, we lose ourselves and enter into their world, as if we were them. I emphasize those words once again because they are so critically important and so often misunderstood. With empathy, we do not step into others' experience to see it with our eyes — empathy demands that we see it with their eyes.That's really what it's all about, isn't it? Seeing with the other person's eyes rather than with our own.