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“It’s easier to imagine the experience of people most like you and nearest you – your best friend, the person who just slipped on the ice. Through imagination and representations – films, printed stories, secondhand accounts – you travel into the lives of people far away. This imaginative entering into is best at the particular, since you can imagine being the starving child but not the region of a million starving people. Sometimes, though one person’s story becomes the point of entry to larger territories.

“This identification is almost instinctual in many circumstances. Even some animals do it; babies cry in sympathy with each other, or in distress at the sound of distress. Neurologists now talk about mirror neurons. You see something you crave, you feel something painful, and areas of your brain respond. You haven’t only witnessed something but also translated it into your own experience, you have felt with and for that other. But to cry because someone cries or desire because someone desires is not quite to care about someone else. There are people whose response to the suffering of others is to become upset and demand consolation themselves.

“Empathy means that you travel out of yourself a little or expand… The root of the word is path, from the Greek word for passion or suffering, from which we also derive pathos and pathology and sympathy. It’s a coincidence that empathy is built from a homonym for the Old English path, as in a trail. Empathy is a journey you travel, if you pay attention, if you care, if you desire to do so. Up close you witness suffering directly, though even then you may need words to know that this person has terrible pains in her joints or that one recently lost his home. Suffering far away reaches you through art, through images, recordings, and narratives; the information travels toward you and you meet it halfway, if you meet it.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

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