One evening years ago, my family was sitting around the dinner table on a school night. Our oldest daughter, who had just turned 16 and gotten her driver’s license, related that she had run over a squirrel on her way home from school.
Her high school was on the hillside of Anchorage, Alaska, and it wasn’t unusual to see a moose on the road. It wasn’t unheard of to see a bear. So, I was just happy that her encounter with wildlife had been minor and that she demonstrated good skills in not swerving recklessly to avoid the animal.
Our 7-year-old daughter, however, reacted differently. The words “I ran over a squirrel” were barely out of her sister’s mouth when Maria burst into tears and began to sob uncontrollably. She was thinking only of the little squirrel that had lost its life that day.
The incident proved to me what I already knew: Maria had empathy. It’s an important and vital human quality. And not everyone has it.
The term “psychopath” is thrown around a bit indiscriminately these days. In Jon Ronson’s very funny but enlightening book “The Psychopath Test,” he describes many of the attributes of a true psychopath and reveals that not all psychopaths are murderers. Many are white-collar criminals or the heads of major companies or even countries.
The key to a psychopath is not necessarily violence. It’s a total lack of empathy for others. It’s a get-what’s-mine by any means mentality.
In Dave Cullen’s masterful best-seller “Columbine,” he relates how the two shooters in that high school massacre were very different personalities. But some believed one of them, Eric Harris, fit the profile of a classic psychopath.
Experts who studied his life and journals found a teenager who could be charming and manipulative with no regard or remorse for the suffering of others. It just wasn’t there. He wasn’t capable of it. And the scary thing is there is next to no treatment for the problem of psychopathy.
So what does all of this mean for us? Aside from being a fascinating subject, psychopathy probably doesn’t affect us, although you could argue that it’s a good thing to be able to recognize it in others.
But most of us have a fair measure of empathy. Just think how we — and most of the world — responded to the recent photo of the little Syrian boy sitting bloodied and stunned in an ambulance after a bombing in Aleppo.
We should realize that our empathy is a God-given gift. Our brain is functioning as a human brain should function. But the real question is, how does that empathy translate into action in our lives?
How do we shift from normal brain function — I care, I feel — to soul function? How will I move from empathy to action?
We live in a world and a media environment that promotes empathy overload. Deep down, we know that the story of the Syrian boy is replayed daily in unremitting warfare. Sometimes, the temptation is to turn away.
In the story of the good Samaritan, the two men who walked past the injured traveler probably felt a measure of pain at his plight. But they were able to ignore that sense of compassion and prioritize their own needs.
They probably rationalized why it simply wasn’t a good idea to stop. Avoiding ritual impurity? A schedule to keep? Too dangerous? They found their reasons and they passed on.
What do we do with our gift of empathy? Do we sigh and hope someone does something? Or do we ask what we can do?