In This Issue

Divining Chaos
The Autobiography of an Idea

New York

From page 22 of Divining Chaos, the Autobiography of an Idea


Chapter: 1 A Path

The consequence of the pandemic for almost everyone was profound and chaotic dislocation from most space and time tethers. If arguments advanced by ecofeminists such as the historian Carolyn Merchant are correct, one reason we came to this dislocated crisis is because art, like gender and nature, was separated from science during the Age of Enlightenment, leaving an empathy gap. As doctors, nurses, and firefighters tended to endangered humans, artists were cultural first responders. But we were all vulnerable, and things were fraying at the edges.

The personal is political; the local is global. Many of our problems are as much about how we behave in our most private and intimate settings as in our policy decisions. My experiences provoke more questions: Is empathy essential to how living systems adapt to change? Can we be both generous and brave? Is the feeling state as critical to strategies of change as political actions and legislated policy change?

Thinkers have long tried to understand why empathy is so often in short supply. Pragmatists say that altruism serves human survival, whether by accepting sustainability limits to human populations or by recognizing the interdependence among species. Love for the other has been at the heart of most religious philosophies. From the Ten Commandments to governmental regulations, civilizations have tried to impose a measure of restraint on unfettered entitlement. Growing up, I needed a coherent story that connected empathy with my environment.

Consider these three words: pity, compassion, and empathy.

Pity has its roots in a religious experience of withness as a communion with divine mercy. Hundreds of years ago, pity and piety were synonymous and conflated with obedience. It is provocative to consider that obedience to the sacred coexisted so intimately with great class disparities, aggressive colonization, and subjugation of the nonwhite world. We think of pity as a close cousin of compassion, the capacity to completely feel another’s suffering, perhaps because in our souls we recognize the sacred potential of bestowing mercy on another. Yet people often resent feeling pitied. The implication is that pity is not the same as truly feeling the suffering of another.

Compassion might be more enlightened than pity. It implies the drive to do something about the source of suffering. Etymologically, the word might be broken down into com-passion, “with passion.”

Empathy, however, goes one step further, understanding the other’s experience on the other’s terms. That requires us to relinquish the security and control of our own frame of reference or confirmation bias, the assumption that we know what we know, and do the work of living in the edges between ourselves and the other.

Empathy has attracted endless research and millennia of philosophical and creative attention. Quite a number of recent writings have singled out failures of empathy throughout public systems, particularly in the United States.

Jamil Zaki argues in The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World that empathy is an acquired skill whose acquisition profoundly changes us. If ever we needed to practice empathy for one another and ourselves in the heat of passion, now is that time.



Published November 2022