(Why bother? Why even move? What goal compels action? Do I get out of bed? Do I make a universe? Why?)
The Cosmos is unfathomably vast, while the material portion of existence is scattered in tiny flecks across the black. We are mostly empty. And, across all the matter in the universe, the aching bulbs of stars, swollen gas giants, icy moons, only a thin smear of that bulk is alive. We are mostly dead. Further, among all the knotted roots and teeming swarms, and in outstretched eons before us, life is unaware, uncaring. We are mostly merciless.
It would seem, from this, that the purpose of the universe is to isolate callous lifeforms from one another using bare rock and vacuum. Such life seems doomed to suffer. It does, most of the time — every life contains some suffering (excepting the brief span of a dopamine-addicted lab rat). Yet, that suffering can take a few forms — a despot might oppress your people, and you all suffer; you might disregard others’ warnings, and suffer your own hubris; you might become teary when listening to hardships your grandmother endured. Tyranny, stupidity, and empathy.
Most living things are unaware that other living things have brains. The world just happens around them, and they respond as they feel best. Was the cat relishing the mouse’s suffering? I doubt that the cat thinks of the mouse as another being, capable of suffering. The cat just plays, tooth and claw, until it gets a treat. Mouse-feelings never cross cats’ furry minds. Life doesn’t care how you feel. Mostly.
So, because lifeforms are going about mercilessly chewing on each other, life is full of conflict and suffering. And, because each new life must learn how to prosper, most life suffers from rampant mistakes. In contrast, empathy is a special kind of suffering, undertaken willfully by the sufferer! Empathy lets us feel a flicker of the emotions that others endured, so that we do not make the same mistakes. Empathy is what stops us from chewing mercilessly upon one another. Empathy cures us of the other forms of suffering, mostly.
In all those empty, unfurling parsecs, among all these orbs of fog and sand, across all of life until just recently, empathy does not exist. Any life without empathy cannot imagine it. Sociopaths are colorblind to the rainbows of empathetic relating. There is no cure. You cannot teach it where it isn’t ready to grow. If we ever meet an alien civilization, I hope they have the capacity for empathy. By that time, I hope we still have ours.
Empathy is special. More than knowledge, creativity, aesthetics, which some suppose will drive our actions once machines grant abundance, more than the technology for such machines — empathy is sacred for humanity. All those other things, history, culture, philosophy, are only the means for empathy to endure. Empathy has no guarantee, is not selected for, not to be taken for granted. Empathy withers without our attention and wise care.
Yet, empathy is the anchor tugging the universe into place. Without it, there are only instincts, no purposes. To perceive experiences among a multiplicity, while retaining our individual tints and facets, is communion. It is the return to the core of our being, by reaching out. Forget creative liberty, or happiness. Happiness isn’t a reason to live — empathy is. In particular, the protection of empathy is the most noble and good purpose, whether robed in monastic ethos or swaddled at your breast. I don’t care for liberty, justice, representation, if those things are inherited by sociopaths. None of those virtues have purpose without a foundation of compassion, and the fortitude to protect it.
I was sitting in the passenger seat of the old truck, my home, smoking a cigarette, watching the birds hop and scratch. A mother, with her toddler daughter, came alongside the truck. Concern was in the mother’s voice, the tone of parental wincing, “Oh, honey, don’t do that to the little bug!” Her daughter had caught a small insect, and was busy with vivisection — the mother continued: “Imagine if you had wings, and you could fly!” Her tone lifted, she paused, giving her daughter that moment of soaring fantasy, “and someone pulled your wings off!”
“Oh.” The daughter’s response was smaller than a hiccup, but it was a seed in her brain — she dropped her bug, and her feet scuffled a bit while she spun into thought. ‘I can imagine being like something else, and so I can imagine how my actions might feel to them’ mulled under her beanie, building the bridge from emotional contagion to affective empathy. That bridge spans all the way to Eudaemonia, across all the emotional tributaries of the heart.
Those moments we spend in empathy are a sacrament. Empathy propels our hands into all the hardest and cruelest places, to make life aright. I trust no other government. Empathy is motive for the fight against merciless swarms, drives us on through callous void. Empathy gives meaning to life, and the greatest spirit in us keeps empathy alive.