For this month’s HuffPost Book Club, I have chosen a big book — both figuratively and literally. Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization clocks in at close to 700 pages and sets out to present nothing less than — as Rifkin puts it — “a new rendering of human history and the meaning of human existence.”
This alternative history focuses not on the conflicts, antagonisms, and power struggles that have marked human progress, but on “the empathic evolution of the human race and the profound ways it has shaped our development and will likely decide our fate as a species.”
Empathy, Rifkin tells us — and backs up with new scientific data — is not a quaint behavior trotted out during intermittent visits to a food bank or during the Haiti telethon. Instead, it lies at the very core of human existence.
This is something I’ve long believed. Indeed, I dedicated a whole book to exploring what I called The Fourth Instinct — that part of the human character that compels us to go beyond our impulses for survival, sex, and power, and drives us to expand the boundaries of our caring to include our communities and the world around us.
And, in the 15 years since then — and especially since the economic meltdown — the role empathy plays in our lives has only grown more important. In fact, in this time of economic hardship, political instability, and rapid technological change, empathy is the one quality we most need if we’re going to survive and flourish in the 21st century.
It’s important to keep in mind what empathy is — and what it’s not. It’s different than sympathy, which is passive. “Empathy,” explains Rifkin, “conjures up active engagement — the willingness of an observer to become part of another’s experience, to share the feeling of that experience.”
But empathy is not just about feeling for another’s suffering. As Rifkin points out: “One can also empathize with another’s joy.” Indeed, according to Rifkin, “empathic moments are the most intensely alive experiences we ever have. We empathize with each other’s struggles against death and for life. One acknowledges the whiff of death in another’s frailties and vulnerabilities. No one ever empathizes with a perfect being.”