Empathy and Human Salvation

It’s easy to blame Donald Trump for the fracture of American society along the faultlines of race, wealth, politics, and religion. But we all know that those faultlines were already there before he brazenly sucked the soul out of the Republican party and exploited social media to seduce millions more into his “Make America Great Again” (aka “What’s in it for me?”) campaign.

Truth is, with the rise of insecurity around the planet, in our nation, and in our own neighborhoods and households, we had been primed for someone just like him to rise up and set us off.

I’ve come to see our human destiny as the contest between two forces, insecurity and empathy. Since our beginnings, and in every cultural corner of the world, these two forces have been steering us along a zig-zagging path through history: sending us into wars, or beckoning us into peace; driving our insatiable appetite for more, or finding contentment in what we have; causing us to contract and become smaller, or opening us up to larger and more inclusive identities.

The much-heralded ascent of individualism in the modern age, with its revolutionary values of freedom, autonomy, agency, and self-responsible authority, came at the expense of a lost sense of communion with and belonging to something larger than ourselves. The price paid was one of security. As our individuation advanced toward “enlightenment,” the shadow of insecurity lengthened behind us.

Gaining our separate self left us feeling exposed, isolated, and lonely – which only compelled an intensified self-obsession in our desperate search for happiness.

Insecurity motivates us to contract and withdraw inside smaller identities, where we hope to take control and manage the threats to our ever-shrinking world. We have convinced ourselves that only by pulling in our affections, putting up our defenses, and closing off more of reality will we stand a chance. And to the degree that insecurity has taken the upper hand, our capacity for empathy has been squeezed out of play.

It doesn’t even occur to us that letting down our guard and opening up to larger horizons might actually restore our lost sense of security. We emotionally reason to ourselves that including more of reality will just expose us to greater risk, taking us in the exact opposite direction we need to go.

But this is indeed the key teaching of our perennial wisdom traditions: The “way of salvation” – referring quite literally to the liberation, healing, wholeness, harmony, and wellbeing we long for as humans – is only found as we can find it in ourselves to love and care about others.

The well-known verse from the Jewish Torah (Leviticus 19:18), “Love your neighbor as yourself,” has been interpreted in different ways. A narrower interpretation might be translated as, “Just as you love yourself, so you should also love others,” while the more generous reading counsels us to “Love as your very self the one who is nearby” – in your neighborhood, as it were.

Of course, this leaves open the question of what is meant by a “neighborhood,” where we and our neighbor presumably live. Does it refer primarily to a residential area containing houses or apartments in close proximity to each other? I will offer a more psychological and ‘existentialist’ definition: Our “neighborhood” is the horizon which we establish as circumference to the center we use in identifying ourselves. In other words, what we identify “as” determines the boundary containing all others who are like us in this specific way.

We naturally identify “with” those who resemble us and who share the same traits that are essential to our own self-identification (“as”).

I’ll go even farther to suggest that “naturally identifying with” a neighbor is a useful definition of what is meant by empathy. The degree in which we are grounded and properly centered in ourselves, intimately familiar with “what it’s like to be me,” to an exact corresponding degree we will resonate with the experience of others whom we recognize as essentially like us.

Our self-understanding, therefore, translates directly into a deep understanding of others, as a kind of spontaneous-intuitive knowing of what they are going through, what they long for, and how they feel.

Evolutionary theory considers all of existence – every atom, rock, cloud, plant, fish, bird, and human being – as manifestions of a single creative process, all together “turning as one”: our universe. The physical matter of our bodies is derived from stardust. We carry the same life-force that animates all living things on Earth. The consciousness that opens our minds to the complexity around us involves us also in a great community of sentient beings.

And the individual ego – that leading indicator of human evolution and lonely exile in search of a lost security – has given us each an ability to see and understand ourselves, in a paradoxically self-conscious way, somehow, somewhere in the immensity of all of this.

It should be clear by now just how we ended up where we are: removed from nature, divided from each other, and at odds with ourselves. In our desperate bid for security, we cut ourselves off from what we found threatening, until all that’s left is the smallest identity we can manage (but still we can’t).

We finally extricated ourselves from the 14-billion-year evolutionary process so that we can kill and die for some party, sect, or idol. When we identify ourselves “as” something so small, very few others, if any, remain for us to identify “with.”

Just before our species passes into extinction, the light of human empathy will go out for the last time.

But let’s hold on for some good news.

It has been proven, again and again, that as individuals are willing to drop into deeper centers of identity, their horizons expand in proportion. Their world enlarges and more “neighbors” are included, activating a correspondingly deep understanding – a love of, care for, and generosity toward those whose essential nature they share.

When our center is so deep and our horizon so large that nothing is exluded from the sense we have of ourselves and the neighbors we care about, humanity will find salvation – at last.

And, to wax biblical for a moment, on that day Earth will rejoice to have us back in the community of Life.

Published by tractsofrevolution

Thanks for stopping by! My formal training and experience are in the fields of philosophy (B.A.), spirituality (M.Div.), and counseling (M.Ed.), but my passionate interest is in what Abraham Maslow called "the farther reaches of our human nature." Tracts of Revolution is an ongoing conversation about this adventure we are all on -- together: becoming more fully human, more fully alive. I'd love for you to join in!

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