Just as nurturance has its subtleties, so does empathy, this much misunderstood function. Empathy is not just the ability to read others’ minds accurately. US child psychiatrist Bruce Perry (he looked after the children who survived the David Koresh, Waco Texas cult disaster, has written several books that are worth reading) uses the term “perspectival” to refer to the aspect of empathy that has to do with the ability to read someone else’s mind accurately.
Hannibal Lecter is a great mind reader, all the better to eat you. The advertising industry employs some of the most sophisticated motivational psychologists/neuroscientists on the planet, all the better to sell you things. Great sociopaths all. Good with cognitive maps of the other, but devoid of any impulse to feel for the other’s benefit.
On the other hand, empathy cannot exist without cognitive maps. The autism sufferer struggles to get a cognitive map of where the “other” comes from, but is tormented by strong and bewildering feelings, and defaults into ritualisms to manage the turmoil, much as do some of our bureaucracies.
Empathy is also different from sympathy, which always patronises. Empathy is not sentimentality, which stays locked in the subject’s revelling in their own “feelings” without a moment’s consideration for the actual experience of the “other”. Sentimentality does not grant equal psychological status to subject and object. We could say that empathy is not only cognitive and affective, but inter-subjective in a very egalitarian way. The most empathic people I know are beings with a quietly electric sense of presence, the Dalai Lamas of this world. You really know they’re fully there, with you, and with themselves.
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