As a young man, I served a brief stint as a hospital orderly, which exposed me to great deal of other people’s pain. In a clinical setting, you learn to put aside any personal feelings so you can do your job. I can remember, for example, when I was called upon to help change the dressings on two beefy factory workers who had been caught in a magnesium flash fire at a chemical plant. Their faces had been burned off, and it was impossible to tell whether they were even conscious. The only reason they survived at all was because their body fat had protected their internal organs. It was clear to all of us caring for these poor souls that they could not survive much longer. The humane thing to do would probably have been to put them out of their misery. But that is not what we did. For days we prolonged their suffering by doing everything we could to keep them alive until they weren’t.
On another occasion, I was dispatched to the cancer floor with a portable bed scale. The doctor had left standing orders that a certain patient be weighed every day. This involved sliding the patient from his bed onto the scale. However, he was obviously near death and in great pain. I took one look at him and blurted out, “What’s the point?” I knew I was speaking out of turn, since the opinions of lowly orderlies were never called for. But for once the nurse agreed. “Forget it,” she said and sent me on my way. It was a small victory for basic human feeling over hospital routine.
It is no mystery why human beings have the capacity to empathize with others. They are mammals who care for their young, which requires that they care what happens to them. There are sound evolutionary reasons why they also care for those in their kinship group and tribe, since cooperative behavior improves the group’s overall chances of survival. Unlike most other species, humans will even display empathy toward complete strangers. As much as we might associate evolution with survival-of-the-fittest selfishness (e.g., Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene), empathy may be the key to humanity’s evolutionary success. “Kindness and cooperation have played a crucial role in raising humans to the top of the evolutionary tree,” argues Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal. “We have thrived on the milk of human kindness.”
Empathy is hard-wired into human nature -- although, God knows, people are still capable of remarkable displays of cruelty toward others of their kind. This no doubt explains why Jehovah felt the need to chisel “Thou Shalt Not Kill” onto the stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai. For Jesus, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor” was part of the Great Commandment, along with, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” When a lawyer asked who should be regarded as his neighbor, Jesus answered with a parable about a despised Samaritan who showed kindness toward a stranger who had been beaten by robbers and left half dead by the side of the road. In effect, he was saying your neighbor is everyone you meet.
The strong biological and ethical foundations of empathy can sometimes override even the instinct for self-preservation, to say nothing of common sense. Jesus had told his disciples, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The military has long taken this to heart. From ancient times they have followed a policy of nemo resideo, Latin for "leave no one behind” – a motto that has been explicitly adopted by Marine Corps' Personnel Retrieval and Processing Company. This is the unit charged with retrieving wounded or fallen comrades on the battlefield to make sure they don’t fall into the hands of the enemy. The other armed-forces branches have similar policies. They will go to extraordinary lengths to remove the dead and wounded from harm’s way, even at mortal risk to themselves.
Some of the same impulse governs care of the gravely ill. How else explain why we kept those two chemical plant workers alive, even when it was plain to all of us who cared for them that they would be better off dead. Yes, caregivers need to err on the side of lifesaving measures when a patient’s survival is at state. However, terminally ill patients are well advised to go into the hospital armed with legal documents to forestall heroic efforts to resuscitate them when all they want to do is die in peace. Empathy, in such circumstances, can appear indistinguishable from cruelty.
There may be sound evolutionary and ethical reasons for empathy in humans, but I think it goes deeper than that. According to our oldest creation myths, we are all created in the image of God; indeed, theologians tell us he is the ground of our being. In evolutionary terms, we may think of him as our common ancestor. This makes us more than brothers and sisters under the skin. We are of “one Being with the Father,” to borrow a phrase from the ancient Nicene Creed.* This is why we are able to empathize with those who outwardly appear to be complete strangers. In reality, there are no strangers, for each is the other.
*The Nicene Creed refers to Jesus alone, but Jesus himself prayed, “ for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. (John 17:20-21)
Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society