DeWitt Henry

February 21, 2018 Henry DeWitt


Wary of the verb  “empathize”—together with its noun “empathy” and adjective “empathic”—I probably use “identify with,” “feel with,” or “relate to” instead.  I know that empathy and sympathy are often confused (and share a common Greek root in pathos or feeling, especially in response to suffering).  The usual distinction is between feeling with and feeling for.  “Compassion,” to feel together, is a synonym for both; while “pity” sounds patronizing compared to either. And without the “sym-,” which means “similar,”  “pathetic” sounds scornful.

We send sympathy rather than empathy cards to the bereaved, for instance.  Not only is writing a letter and finding the right words difficult, but to some degree impertinent.  We want the bereaved to know that they’re not alone, and that we are aware of their pain, but at the same time don’t want to intrude on it. The cards speak for us, and are personalized by our signature.  “Heartfelt sympathy,” they say.  “Warm Thoughts….Condolences during this difficult time…. I feel for you, I’m thinking of you, and I’d do anything to help….I could not possibly understand what you are feeling….I want to send my deepest sympathy….I’m willing to listen….  Sorry for your loss.”

D.H. Lawrence criticized Walt Whitman’s sympathy: “Eskimos are not minor little Walts. They are something I am not.  I know that….He does not say love.  He says sympathy.  Feeling with.  Feel with them as they feel with themselves….He [confounds] it with Jesus’s Love and Paul’s Charity…”  If Lawrence isn’t confused here, I am.  By “sympathy” Whitman must mean empathy.  Or perhaps Lawrence objects to Walt’s sentimentality—Walt’s feelings for the “other” are driven by idealism, and exaggerated, if not affected.

The opposite of feeling for or with is indifference, or worse, antipathy.  You’re so vain you think this song is about you. In large cities, the likelihood of acts of random meanness is higher than that of kindness.  We don’t want to get involved, we say.  We’re defensive, if not self-absorbed.  We ignore the homeless, and even the injured.  George Eliot’s rural observation (in Middlemarch) seems like our excuse:  “If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.  As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

Some of us have more imagination than others, of course, particularly writers.  Some of us are more capacious and generous.  We can bear more or less pain.  Thom Jones’s great story, “I Want to Live,” is his imagining of his mother-in-law’s decline with terminal cancer: “Where was the empathy?” she thinks about her doctor.  “Why did he get into this field if he couldn’t empahtize?  In this field, empathy should be your stock-in-trade.” Her son-in-law (the writer), on the other hand, cheers her. He advocates for methodone and finds temporary remedies for side-effects.  “The son-in-law understood,  Of all the people to come through.  It’s bad and it gets worse and so on until the worst of all…’What does it feel like?’ he asks her. “‘…Like that?  Really? Jittery!  Oh, God, that must be awful…I couldn’t—I’d take a bottle of pills, shoot myself…I know I couldn’t handle chemo.’”  He reads and shares Schopenhauer.  He helps with unfinished business.  He’s genuine company.


Just as a preoccupation with physical fitness has spread from gyms to the general culture, the practice of mindfulness has spread from ashram to PBS and seeks to develop empathy in a world where technology threatens to isolate and distract us.  “In the U.S. in recent years, mindfulness meditation has become a mainstream stress reducer, widely practiced in schools, corporations, and even by a Member of Congress” (  “Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering,” argue researchers in Psychological Science, 24(10).  Memoirist Beth Kephart has recently proposd that each town should organize an Empathy Project, where locals meet and listen to each other ( ). In self-awareness begins awareness of others, supposedly.

When it comes to differences, E.M. Forster’s word, “tolerance,” isn’t enough.  During WW2, he asks what we can do with defeated Nazis.  “Tolerance means putting up with people, being able to stand things…This is the only force which will enable different races and classes and interests to settle down together to the work of reconstruction…There are two solutions.  One of them is the Nazi solution.  If you don’t like people, kill them…The other way…is on the whole the way of the democracies….If you don’t like people, put up with them as well as you can.  Don’t try to love them, you can’t, you’ll only strain yourself.  But try to tolerate them….Tolerance carries on when love gives out….It’s dull.  And yet it entails imagination.”  Of course later, in his Aspects of the Novel lectures, Forster argues that “We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion.”

Considerate doesn’t mean empathic, though empathic people are likely to be considerate.  Considerate means being respectful of the rights of others and their privacy, space, and freedoms.  We make allowances for a late night party down the street, at least at first, but as it grows rowdier, we call the cops. The partiers themselves don’t consider us. They’re disturbing the peace.

President Obama insisted on “empathy” as a requirement for his Supreme Court nominees. A woman on the court, he argued, would temper justice with mercy and protect progressive social reforms: “we need somebody who’s got the heart—the empathy—to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom.  The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old—and that’s the criteria by which I’ll be selecting my judges” (2007).  Conservative jurists were offended by the idea that legal objectivity was a myth, and that white male bias could only be balanced by other biases, as determined by different backgrounds and experiences.

Think of the powerless Lear, more sinned against than sinning, discovering first sympathy: “Take physic, pomp, /Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel”;  then reasoning in madness against all mortal judgment: “The usurer hangs the cozener…None does offend, I say, none.”  Well, yes and no.  Evil still prevails, at least until the offenders destroy each other (together with Cordelia).

“How would you feel if someone did that to you?” we ask our children; and then apologize while punishing them: “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

Contemporary psychologists disagree about what empathy is, and whether it is for good or for ill.  If good, it may improve morality and relatedness in a world of “absurd” suffering; if ill, it may add to the suffering.  In Against Empathy: the case for rational compassion (2016), Paul Bloom rejects emotional empathy as “a poor moral guide,” one that favors the few over the many and “can lead to irrational and unfair political decisions…; can corrode certain important relationships, such as between a doctor and patient, and make us worse at being friends, parents, husbands and wives.”  For truer kindness, he instead recommends self-control and intelligence, which make for a “more diffuse compassion.” However, other psychologists contest his separation of the emotional and cognitive, and argue that one the leads naturally to the other. They are connected. “It is our ability to generalize and to direct our empathy through the use of reason that is our saving grace,” write Drs. Denise and Robert Cummins. “Without that, it is easy to create a holocaust, a crusade, or a jihad” (

Meanwhile, surrounded and blessed by larger hearts than my own, I wonder if I suffer from “empathy deficiency disorder,” a term coined by Douglas LaBier Ph.D., director, Center for Progressive Development (  Empathy is hard-wired in all of us, he explains, but the more we are conditioned by our materialistic society, the more we equate status, money, and power with who we are.  “EDD keeps you locked inside a self-centered world.”  We can, however, develop more empathy through mental exercise.  At odds with your wife?  Consider some aspect that your partner dislikes about you, then “shift your consciousness into your partner’s perspective”; try to “understand rather than to judge.”  With enemies, and with strangers, as well; think how or why they are hostile, allow for your own mistakes, “open yourself to seeing yourself through their eyes”; with those different from you, allow for the commonalities, such as hopes, dreams, and disappointments.  The “mirror neurons” will fire.

Nevertheless I need to guard against pain, intrusion, sentimentality, self-congratulation, and preaching.  I protect myself in order to function, I tell myself.  Unlike my wife, I hang up on charity calls.  I feel squeamish and reluctant to visit my dying brother six hours away.  It’s usually my wife who feels and insists on the decent thing, instinctive where I am defensive (and once she does convince me to go, afterwards I’m glad).  When a campus rival, who was struggling with cancer, accused me of coldness in opposing his promotion; he was right.  Even before being sick, he had failed to publish; and as for compassion, he had family for that.  When family friends lost their 9 year old son, I felt their suffocating pathos, but also felt glad for my own son’s health.  Their bad luck, I thought.  On the other hand, I grieved with my distant sister and her 34-year-old son, a painter, as he declined from AIDS: “In missing, or in getting ready to miss you, what I feel, John, is a debt,” I wrote to him.  Later I edited Sorrow’s Company: Writers on Loss and Grief, an anthology of “writing [that] reminds me to value the living…and never, ever to take a person, friend, lover, daughter, son, neighbor, colleague, student, for granted, though in living I must.”

I respond to uncommon kinships: those whom I admit to my soul’s society. The compassion I feel for the victims of natural disasters, on the other hand, is more abstract, like the radio announcer’s, who on witnessing the Hiddenburg explode, gasped, “Ah, the humanity!” The victims’ claim is on our common nature, where no one is more valuable than another.

As soldiers, we “turn off the switch inside our head” (says Tim O’Brien about combat in Viet Nam). We practice necessary numbness; and dehumanizing the enemy, are ourselves dehumanized.  Life is cheap.


I’m quick to condemn everyday jerks (see and, for being dense, over-weening, humorless, and sick of self-love: all traits I fear and despise as my own.  Jerks try my patience, if not my empathy, since they lack both.  They seem like obstacles to a better world.


Close-hearted; empty-hearted; open-hearted.


Tell a story, I tell my students, about someone of different gender, race, class, age, body type, occupation, and/or values. You’ll need to pay attention.  Question, listen, and observe; read authors from these groups.  Even if you start with prejudice, story-telling demands due regard. Take Andre Dubus’s story “Fat Girl,” for instance, and his risk of offending readers who are sensitive about body image and gender.


Caveat: hucksters and seducers use their understanding to exploit us.  They prey on our weaknesses.  They recognize our commonality, but leave the swtich off.  At once empathic and predatory, they want our money, touch, or vote.


Reading and writing stories may inspire compassion, but mainly while we’re doing them, or in their afterglow, which fades.  Dostoyevski can give me a temporary psychological high; D.H. Lawrence a sense of “blood knowledge.”  Sherwood Anderson hoped that his stories would “[break] down a little the curious separateness of so much of life.”  I recall an eminent male professor’s introducing Tillie Olsen by crediting “Tell Me A Riddle” with making him kinder to his wife.


We must feel and not feel, it seems to me.  We learn to relinquish those we love.  We brace, if not harden our hearts.  Parents let their children go; and children their parents.  Both cruel and kind, we leave as we are left, though we keep in touch and ready to help. Of course, “past hope is past care,” is one common saying, yet “where there’s life, there’s hope” is equally true.


We have call to believe in progress, both personal and cultural.  Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature argues that the humanitarian revolution of the 18th century led to lasting reforms and to our present demand for world-wide human rights.  Not that empathy exists only in and between humans.  Dogs show it towards each other and their masters, and we feel it for animals even as we “put them out of their misery.”  Surely, the world would be happier with more compassion, and Roman Krananc sees it as “a most valuable and valued twenty-first century asset” ( ), though endangered.  A University of Michigan study found in 2011 “that college students today scored 40% lower in empathy than those of the past decades, with the biggest drop coming at the turn of the millenium” (, suggesting that while connecting and informing us the internet and social media also serve to distract and stunt feeling ( ).  As products of the wired world, Millenials are conditioned (or so goes the argument) to superficial thinking and relationships. They surf and globe trek.  Are locked into private portals of chat and entertainment and zoned out of family discussions.  Media violence makes them “insensitive to others’ pain.”  They are “hypercompetitive and expectant,” etc., etc.  If so, then neural calesthentics need to reverse the trend: therapy, medication, mediation, different educational styles, art, and religion.  Survival is at stake.  Personhood and destiny.  Or maybe not.

What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem?

Even wondering helps.





DeWitt Henry’s chapbook, FOUNDLINGS: FOUND POEMS FROM PROSE (Life Before Man/ Gazebo Books), and his first collection, RESTLESS FOR WORDS: POEMS (Finishing Line Press) are available this fall, 2022.  His memoir, ENDINGS & BEGINNINGS: FAMILY ESSAYS (Mad Hat, 2021), was long listed for the PEN Award for the Art of the Essay, 2022.  He was the founding editor of Ploughshares and is Prof. Emeritus at Emerson College. Details at .