Empathy is being at one with the emotions of others, including but not limited to their suffering. It is not pity or even sympathy; it is understanding and entering into, or recognizing and sharing, another person’s feelings. Returning to the first few distinctions we made, recall that our own life experience enables to understand something of the life experience of others. That emotional understanding is the distinction we call empathy.
- Janet Elder, Huck: The Remarkable True Story of How One Lost Puppy Taught a Family - and a Whole Town - About Hope and Happy Endings (Broadway Books, 2010). [how empathy can heal the empath]
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2014): essays. “Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds.”
- Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857). [empathy for the subject]
- Charles Baxter, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories (Pantheon, 2011), stories from the author's home, the American Midwest.
- Alan Heathcock, Volt : Stories (Graywolf Press, 2011): “Heathcock displays a generosity of spirit that only those writers who love their characters can summon . . .”
- John Irving, In One Person (Simon & Schuster, 2012): “a story about memory . . . about desire , the most unsettling of our memories . . . (and) a story about reading yourself through the stories of others”.
- Jo Baker, Longbourn: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), a sympathetic look at servants in a British household.
- Andrew Sean Greer, Less: A Novel (Little, Brown & Company, 2017): “ . . . the funniest, smartest and most humane novel I’ve read since Tom Rachman’s 2010 debut, ‘The Imperfectionists.’ . . . . By the time Arthur reaches Japan, the reader isn’t just rooting for him but wants to give the poor guy a hug.”
- Richard Ford, Canada: A Novel (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2012): “Willa Cather once wrote that ‘a creative writer can do his best only with what lies within the range and character of his deepest sympathies.’ By that measure, and any other, Richard Ford is doing his very best in his extraordinary new novel . . . ”
- Jenny Offill, Weather: A Novel (Knopf, 2020): “. . . a novel reckoning with the simultaneity of daily life and global crisis, what it means for a woman to be all of these things . . .”
- Meena Kandasamy, When I Hit You, or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (Atlantic Books, 2017): “This is not just a story of survival, but, more important, one of self-preservation.”
Film and Stage
- In Cold Blood: filmed with the sensibilities of the 1960s, this quasi-documentary of a murder of a Kansas family is a study in empathy for the victims and to an extent for the murderers
- Daniel, about the Rosenberg executions, seen through the eyes of one of their sons
- Donnie Brasco, about an FBI agent who comes to identify with the Mafia members whose gang he has infiltrated
- Ladybird, Ladybird “asks viewers to imagine what it is like for Maggie . . . to open a newspaper one day and see a photograph of a boy in need of adoptive parents.”
- Violette: challenging the limits of empathy, this film tells the true story of a young woman who murders her father to collect an inheritance
- Au Hazard Balthazar: filmmaker Robert Bresson presents the life of a mistreated animal, “noble in its acceptance of a life over which it has no control”, in a way that allows the audience to draw its own conclusions about his experiences
What is kindness? Where is the line between empathy and arrogance? These two films raise these and other questions:
- Brother’s Keeper, a documentary about two brothers in upstate New York, one of whom was accused of killing the other
- Of Mice and Men, in which Steinbeck left no doubt who ended Lennie’s life
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Blues is music of suffering but B.B. King presented this art form in a way that drove forward musically without dismissing – on the contrary, by building on – the essential foundations of blues.
- a compilation of greatest hits
- live in Dallas, 1983
- live at the North Sea Jazz Festival, 1987
- with Albert King, Japan Blues Carnival, 1989
- live in Bonn, 1994
- live in Bellinzona, Switzerland, 2001
- live by request in New York City, 2003
- live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2011
- Brahms’ two orchestral serenades: Serenade 1 in D Major, Op. 11 (1857); Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16 (1859)
- Mozart, Il re pastore(The Shepherd King), K 208 (1775): recognizing the injustice in keeping two lovers from each other, the king relents (performances here, and here).
- Biber, 8 Sonatæ violino solo, C. 138-145 (1681)
- Raga Multani, a Hindustani raag, usually performed in the afternoon (performances by Banerjee, Amzad Ali Khan and Amir Khan)
- Don Byron, “Tuskegee Experiments” album
- On “Amanké Dionti”, Volker Goetze’s soft-edged jazz trumpet provides a haunting counterpoint to Ablaye Cissoko’s heartfelt kora and vocals.
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
[Paul Lawrence Dunbar, “Sympathy”]
- Sunil Gangopadhyay, “A Truth-Bound Sentiment”