It was Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs in the mid 1900s that got human psychology well off the ground, because it was “so right on” with our everyday developmental experiences. The first two needs of physical wellbeing and security are tended to with adequate parenting to bring us into the social environment of belonging. Maslow’s third need ‘belonging’ means relationships by which we share each other’s realities that connect with still others until our reach through belonging can extend beyond our boundaries. Baumeister explains belonging in the social dimension: Human beings are intensely social creatures who have a need to belong and connect with others (Baumeister and Leary,[1] 1995).

Our realities begin with the simple smile of the caregiver who offers recognition of our existence. A baby’s first smiles are reflexive even in the womb but the first cognitive smile can happen midway in the second month because of improving vision. Still, the reflexive smile is in response to anything pleasant. Is this empathy? Maybe not yet but it is relationship, a response to another, a sense of there’s someone here for me even before birth. It seems that the initiative of mother’s smile is enough to awaken a child’s innate empathy, the child’s ability to know the inner state of mother’s thoughts and want to respond to them.

Very simply, Mark Davis defines empathy as the “reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another” (Davis[2], 1983). To put some flesh on this, since we are human, we might add to Davis a couple more dimensions in that empathy is feeling and understanding the emotional experience of another person. Even though the other person’s outward behavior can be noted by the observer through his mirror neurons, it is the observer’s ability to attune emotionally and understanding cognitively what the other person might be experiencing. Putting this in a second brief statement, we can know the internal state of someone and want to care about that person.

We were created to belong to others. Our relationships are needed to make us human – to communicate, to cry, to babble, to touch, to play, to pass through each stage of our human development. However mysterious, we began life with the key of empathy – that ability to open doors to relationships, the source of rich human life. We are biologically fashioned to connect with others, beginning with mirror neurons and experiencing each other throughout a variety of our bodily organs to finally appreciate the other human in our highest human faculty, our understanding consciousness.

William Ickes[3], editor of Empathic Accuracy (1997), an anthology, placed empathy second to the importance of consciousness as the second greatest human achievement: “Empathic inference is everyday mind reading… It is … a form of complex psychological inference in which observation, memories, knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others … It may be the second greatest achievement of which the mind is capable, consciousness itself being the first” (p. 2 of his Introduction).

If we can accept Ickes’ insight into the importance of empathy next to consciousness, then we can understand Jeremy Rifkin’s[4] statement that empathy is our key to belonging through our connections to other human beings. “To sum up, if reality is experience and experience is always in relationship to others, then the more extensive the relationships, the deeper we penetrate the various layers of reality and the closer we come to understanding the meaning of existence.” (p. 155).

Lest we read too much into empathy, we best caution to differentiate empathy from sympathy and compassion. Sympathy is a statement of understanding the feelings of another as in “I know what you are going through.” It is a unity with the experiencing person to share the emotional state of the person usually suffering some grief, and so mutual tears or even joy if the emoting person wants to share her elation.

However, empathy stands back a bit with the recognition that the other person is not the observer who cannot truly know what the other is experiencing. Empathy calls for deeper listening so that genuine understanding can be reached by both persons in the encounter. Empathy opens the heart and soul of the other with the observer. Empathy opens the heart of the other to help the observer listen with keen attention and understand the other.

Compassion differs from empathy in that compassion is almost a compulsion to do something about the suffering of another. Its motivation is to relieve the other of distress and discomfort. Compassion is not so much a sharing with the other as it is desire to improve the wellbeing of another.   Compassion carries with it a kind of “one-upmanship” in that “I am here to rescue you.” Empathy is “feeling as another”, understanding the other’s experience, while compassion is “feeling for another” as in “I will help you.”

In 2013, President Barack Obama[5] gave the commencement address at Morehouse College. He encouraged the graduates to pursue empathy as the way to succeed in the world, crediting his own success to a sense of empathy and connections to others.

Arthur Ciaramicoli[6] (2016) closed his book The Power of Empathy with this quote: “… empathy creates the invisible connections that hold us together, one human to another, neighborhood to village, community to country, nation to planet. With the connectedness that empathy engenders, the world itself becomes a less frightening place. A sense of belonging replaces loneliness, strangers appear less strange, defenses seem less necessary, and hope replaces hopelessness. Doubts give way to faith, resentments fade, and our hearts, once closed by fear and pain, open up to the possibility of forgiveness. This is power – and the promise – of empathy.”

[1] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529.

[2] Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113– 126.

[3] Ickes, William, editor of anthology, (1997). Empathic Accuracy, The Gillford Press; New York, N.Y.

[4] Rifkin, Jeremy, (2009), Empathic Civilization, Penguin, New York, N.Y.

[5] Obama, Barack, (2013). Remarks by the President at Morehouse College commencement ceremony.

[6] Ciaramicoli, Arthur; Ketchum, Katherine, (2016). The Power of Empathy, Penguin Publishing Group, New York, N.Y.