Café Discovery: On the Thickness of Skin

(4:00PM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

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The Storyteller took a deep breath and cast back for another memory, another story to tell.  The Listener was patient, but did require the occasional feeding.  The Storyteller chuckled at the observation.  The Engineer glanced backward and nodded.  And the Train switched to another happentrack.  

The Storyteller began to sing.  The Listener leaned forward.  The passenger turned over, but otherwise remained sleeping.

One day Sun found a new canyon.

It hid for miles and ran far away,

then it went under a mountain.  Now Sun

goes over but knows it is there.  And that

is why sun shines–it is always looking.

Be like the sun.

–William Stafford

Δ  Δ  Δ  Δ  Δ Δ

Pine was at it again, hectoring all of creation.  Canyon rolled its eyes as Sun passed overhead.  Canyon preferred peace.

Pine laughed at Birch.  He pointed at Rainbow Eucalyptus and said, “Are you trying to be her?  No bark at all?  So disgusting.  No morals.  She is a danger to us all.”

Birch cringed.  “But she is pretty,” Birch said.

Birch hated it when Pine got this way.  Pine was devoid of feelings for others, and so became extremely judgmental and disdainful.  Birch wanted to say something about it, but didn’t want to seem judgmental himself.  Birch often wished Pine would keep his opinions to himself.  Birch cringed again just thinking about it.

Pine continued, “I’m telling you, Birch.  You will rue the day when Fire comes and you don’t have the bark to protect yourself.  You’ll be sorry…and a danger to us all.”  And with that, Pine fell silent.

But Birch remembered a time, a time when he felt the pain, so weak he almost missed it.

He had reached out his mind and beheld strange creatures, so unfocused, so unaware…so totally unaware of him.  So incredibly fragile.  No bark at all.  But creatures nonetheless.

Birch remembered when he told Willow about what he had sensed, and she provided a treatment for the pain.   It wasn’t that long ago.

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The word first appeared in 1903, a translation of the German Einfühlung (from ein “in” + Fühlung “feeling”), which was coined in 1858 by the German philosopher and logician Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817-81).

Note:  Lotze studied the sciences under Weber, Volkmann and Fechner (Weber is credited with inventing experimental psychology) and aesthetics and art under Weisse.  He considered himself an idealist in the style of Hegel and Fichte.  But he was the bridge to a new way of thinking.

[He wrote] …a series of works which aimed at establishing in the study of the physical and mental phenomena of the human organism in its normal and diseased states the same general principles which had been adopted in the investigation of inorganic phenomena.

But I digress.

The word was developed from the  Greek empatheia “passion,” from en- “in” + pathos “feeling” (see pathos).  It was originally a term from the theory of art appreciation.  Empathize (v.) was coined 1924; empathic (adj.) is from 1909.

Online Etymology Dictionary

From Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, wherein one of the methods of distinguishing humans from androids involves a test based on involuntary empathic reactions, through the half-Betazoid Deanna Troi, to the television series Charmed and Angel, empaths have been grist for the fictional wheel.

Empathy is not sympathy.  Sympathy is a way of reacting to someone who is suffering.  Empathy is feeling that suffering as if it were you own.  In it’s simplest form, it is flinching when someone slams his finger in a door.  At it’s most sophisticated, it is their pain in your heart.


Some see it as another form of spiritualism…of the fortune teller variety.  Some call it New Age, though it is as old as the wind.  I rather see it as the basis for compassion.  I see the command that I thicken my skin as a demand that I abandon my compassion.  I will not do that.

When they come and ask me why I didn’t protect you, I don’t want to have to say that my skin was so thick I couldn’t feel your pain.


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    • Robyn on July 6, 2008 at 20:00

    Shaman’s Call

  1. … of compassion, yes.

    And in the political realm, the necessary condition for solidarity, I believe.

  2. …that politics based on emotion is, by definition, irrational.  

    While I do believe empathy is important, I don’t actually think it is possible, Robyn, for you or anyone else to “feel my pain.”  And more to the point, I definitely don’t think I want you casting your vote out of empathy with my pain.  I want you to focus rationally on what will best make my lot (or anyone else’s lot) easier.  Indeed, if I had to put a name on so much of what I think is wrong with America, it is that doing what you feel will make things better is a substitute for doing what will actually make things better.

    Feelings are misleading.  Pain is misleading.  What we require is empiricism.  

  3. issue most acutely at work. Many of the younger nurses get deeply attached to the patients they care for and pretty much fall apart if they die. Nothing wrong with that but I have had a few instances when families ended up comforting caregivers.

    It is a tough balance and they rarely listen to my advice because it is a process they have to go through on their own. I tell them they will get their heart broken they blow it off and then fall apart in tears in the privacy of our office. Somebody asked me once if I ever got “used to” seeing children die and I said well of course not, my mask is just better than yours.

  4. Call me an idealist, but I think empathy for others is our natural condition. It is our myth of independence that keeps us from being aware of that.  

  5. let’s live them with style

    Even if the two of us are every torn apart

    Take my revolution

    • kj on July 6, 2008 at 22:03
  6. says:

    Ahimsa or non-violence is a powerful idea that Mahatma Gandhi made familiar throughout the world. Non-violence. It is something more positive, more meaningful than that. The true expression of non-violence is compassion. Some people seems to think that compassion is just a passive emotional response instead of rational stimulus to action. To experience genuine compassion is to develop a feeling of closeness to others combined with a sense of responsibility for their welfare. True compassion develops when we ourselves want happiness and not suffering for others, and recognize that they have every right to pursue this.

    Compassion compels us to reach out to all living beings, including our so-called enemies, those people who upset or hurt us. Irrespective of what they do to you, if you remember that all beings like you are only trying to be happy, you will find it much easier to develop compassion towards them. Usually your sense of compassion is limited and biased. We extend such feelings only towards our family and friends or those who are helpful to us. People we perceive as enemies and others to whom we are indifferent are excluded from our concern. That is not genuine compassion. True compassion is universal in scope. It is accompanied by a feeling of responsibility. To act altruistically, concerned only for the welfare of others, with no selfish or ulterior motives, is to affirm a sense of universal responsibility.

    Thanks for a great essay.

    • RiaD on July 7, 2008 at 00:50

    i had an empathy bonus….my mom said i was a ‘sensitive child’….you know how you can walk into a room & feel the ppl have been arguing? i can feel ‘most any emotion in others….many times its a curse….i see all sides of a discussion…. & i ‘wear my heart on my sleeve’ too… it’s not a pleasant combination

    thanks for this

    thought provoking!

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