“Why did I do that?” I thought to myself.
I had just returned a wallet filled with money to its rightful owner. Although from the moment I found it until the moment it was returned, I had not, even for a second, thought about pocketing the money, now that the deed was done I ventured to look inward and figure out why I — and I imagine most decent human beings — did not even consider the possibility.
The question was even more interesting for me specifically because I am not religious. I don’t feel an ever-present watchful Eye focused on my earthly actions. Although I don’t have any idea what happens after death, I certainly don’t harbor any fears of damnation. What then, what inner mechanics were working inside me that caused me to not even consider the utilitarian benefit of simply pocketing some of the new-found cash? Although condemned by our society, wouldn’t it have been more rational to empty the wallet and put it back in the crevice of the bus where it had been discovered?
I thought back to the moment the beat up leathery wallet had entered into my reality. What was my first thought? Recreating the scene, I recalled that my first reaction, and the emotional state that stayed with me until the moment the wallet was returned, was something akin to panic. I felt, in some way, the still-unknown owner’s pain. I had lost wallets before, as well as other valuables, so it was not difficult for my mind to produce the same emotional effects as I am sure he (I had already established the gender of the owner) was feeling: the tightness in the stomach, the racing mind, the feeling of shame of one’s own stupidity and carelessness; without trying I was experiencing a feeling induced only by the realization that someone, somewhere, was suffering.
Using Facebook, I was able to track down (surprisingly quickly) the owner of the lost wallet, and just like that the whole ordeal was over. I discovered, however, something inside me — inside each one of us — that I believe has the power to transform the world.
Humanity, it seems, is finely tuned to feel empathy. Empathy is the strange ability to relate to the suffering of another, to curl up next to them in almost equal pain, merely by contemplating being in the same situation. We have all felt compelled by something deep inside of us to act on behalf of those whose suffering we witness. Once we identify with the common humanness of the downtrodden or desperate, we are inspired toward action — even, at times, to our own detriment. Empathy is something we have all felt, and it is something our society could not do without.
Why then do we not have peace? Why do otherwise empathetic beings partake in violence, deceit, and corruption, willfully causing pain to others? What is the secret to empathy that causes us to act righteously in some situations and cruel in others?
Empathy only works when we believe that the sufferer encountered is like us. We only can feel the pain of another if we don’t consider them the Other.
And so we get to what I call the Circle of Empathy.
Each of us stands within an imaginary circle of empathy. How far the circle reaches and whom exactly it encompasses will depend on our culture, our upbringing, and our personal reflection.
Allow me to shed light on this idea with a rather dark example: Are we to believe that every soldier who donned an SS uniform was a psychopath? Are we to believe that they did not feel the empathy I felt for the owner of the lost wallet? Of course they did! Certainly some of them were mad, but I suspect these were the exception rather than the rule. It may seem baffling to us at first, to imagine that a soldier who mercilessly murdered a mother clutching her child could feel anything remotely human, especially so noble an emotion as empathy; but we know he almost certainly did. We would sometimes like to believe that we are of a different species than such creatures, but we all know this is not the case. Disturbing though it may be, the Nazis were human just like you and me. They felt the pain of other Germans — they were perhaps motivated by it — but they did not feel the pain of anyone that was different. Their circle of empathy was very small indeed.
For society to flourish, we must widen our circles to include not just our family or community, not just our race or religion, but every human being with whom we share this little planet.
So long as we believe that there are, in fact, borders that divide humankind, that there exists the dichotomous “they” and “us,” we will continue to perpetuate the conflicts that have been steadily tearing our world apart.
When we realize our kinship with all of humanity, when we truly believe that we are all brothers and sisters, returning a lost wallet becomes practically human nature.