The capacity for empathy is perhaps one of the most remarkable traits of humanity. The ability not only to recognize another’s feelings, but to adopt them as our own requires an astounding level of emotional intelligence, yet incredibly, having this ability is considered a cornerstone in the foundation of what makes a decent, normal, functional human being. To that end, people without empathy — labeled sociopaths, a descriptor that sounds scary — are treated with uncertainty, distrust, even fear. We think of them like wild animals: we don’t know quite what goes on in their minds, except that they only care to serve and protect themselves. And yet, we may not be so different from them. After all, as complex a thing as empathy is, it doesn’t come naturally to any of us.
Empathy is something we must be taught how to use. Spend more than a few hours with a young child and you can observe this for yourself: children are naturally selfish. I spent the weekend with one who is going through a phase of throwing tantrums when things don’t go exactly his way, and who has learned to pepper his outbursts with hurtful words like “never” and “hate”, obviously not understanding the full power of the blows delivered by such words — but definitely understanding that they can be used as weapons in the fight to get what he wants. (They’re not very effective weapons, as they have yet to achieve the results he’s after, but he hasn’t quite caught on to that yet.) Children are master manipulators, whether they know it or not. At an age when so much about life is already new and confusing to them, figuring out how and, moreover, why to be empathetic is hard. And it makes sense: when you get right down to it, selfishness is a survival instinct. The member of the species with the most resources is the most likely to be successful. Are sociopaths, then, merely a reflection of our truest and most natural selves? A window into what we would be if we weren’t so civilized — if we weren’t raised in a way that made us civilized?
I’m fascinated that we, as a species, have managed to develop (and even value and encourage) such a seemingly counter-productive trait like empathy. But what interests me just as much is that we’ve gotten so good at it. When we master it, we really master it, and suddenly it takes on a life of its own — and if we use it to its full potential, it can go from merely counter-productive to self-destructive.
Koev halev. Heavy, tolling, poetic. Plaintive and somber, infused with all the pain of an aching heart. It’s the name for what happens when our empathy shifts into overdrive in response to another’s suffering. It goes beyond merely identifying with the feelings of the other person; with koev halev, we allow these feelings to invade and supplant our own, taking over with such ferocity that it physically pains us. It’s as if our emotions, in those moments, are no longer our own: we are living fully through the person with whom we are identifying, and it becomes hard to say who’s really in control. Perhaps we seek so strongly to understand what the other person must be going through that we make ourselves live it. Maybe we want to give them someone to relate to, another person in this world who knows their pain. Or maybe we convince ourselves that acting as an emotional surrogate will relieve the other person’s suffering, at least a little bit. Humans are so beautifully, tragically complicated.
Regardless of the reasons we experience it, koev halev gives us no clear advantage when it comes to survival. The advantages it does lend us, then, are most likely social — which comes with some interesting implications. Chiefly, that society relies upon the empathy of its constituents. If we didn’t exercise empathy, all the building blocks that we teach children to ensure they’ll grow into empathetic adults — sharing, playing fair, being nice to people — would no longer have relevance, and the social implications would be steep. Indeed, empathy — as counter-productive as it may seem on paper — is important. Perhaps that’s the reason we’re so wary of sociopaths: to our minds, they pose a threat to the values and the way of life that the world we know is built upon. To take the idea one step farther, people who lack empathy are not bound by the rules of personal restraint that we exercise upon ourselves. Perhaps, in them, we see what we could be if we truly let loose, lost control, obeyed only our most visceral impulses and urges — and envisioning ourselves in this light scares us.
But hidden in that fear also lies a certain beauty, in our ability to empathize even with those who can’t reciprocate. With such limited memory of what it was like to be childlike and selfish, our empathy really does feel like it comes naturally to us, like it’s always been there. And perhaps it was — it just had to be awakened. I’m no psychologist; I won’t pretend to know whether the capacity for empathy is something we’re born with. But I will choose to believe that the ability to experience koev halev is a blessing in disguise, a sobering yet oddly heartwarming reminder of what brings us together, what makes us uniquely and undeniably human.