The Empathy/Nature Connection

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

It seems that ‘empathy’ has become a topic of interest lately.

Psychologists. Researchers. Journalists. Teachers. They’re writing about empathy. Plumbing its meaning and touting its values. They promote empathy and use principles of empathy in their programs. Empathy has even found its way into the business world, promising improved employee productivity and increased sales.

Some information about empathy:

1) Basically, empathy is thought of as an innate ability to take another’s perspective; more commonly known as the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to recognize and respond to what the person is feeling.

2) Advocates for empathy say that without empathy self-interest would prevail.

3) Research has shown that the ability to show empathy is associated with pro-social behavior, behaviors such as obeying rules, conforming to society, and expressing concern for the welfare of others.

4) Research has also shown that pro-social and conservation behaviors are more likely to occur in people who are disposed to connecting empathically with nature.

What about animals?  Do they possess the capacity for empathy? Those who distinguish humans from animals would like us to believe that, no, animals do not exhibit empathy, which is unique to humans.

Evidence does exist, however, to the contrary, and it is possible that empathy is genetically encoded in animals as well as in humans.

Many stories have been written – and I’m convinced that each of you could come up with stories of your own – about animals engaged in what appears to be empathic behavior. An elephant guarding a lost, helpless hiker. A humpback whale sweeping a seal being hunted by a killer whale onto its back.

I once watched one of my cats try to rescue a very perturbed kitten who had gotten stranded on my roof. His strategy was to show her how to jump from the roof to an adjacent tree and climb down. He did it three or four times before giving up, as the kitten would have none of it.

The cat’s sense of ‘responsibility’ went just so far. With humans, however, it’s unlikely that we would give up that easily. We would try other methods.  Maybe that’s one thing that does separate us from the animals. Our vast intellectual ability and our resourcefulness would compel us to test out various solutions.  Maybe that’s when empathy actually crosses over to another human trait: determination. Stubbornness?

If you do accept the premise that empathy is a shared experience between humans and all of nature, it seems to require acceptance of the implications of an empathic relationship with nature.

  • The recognition of our interdependence
  • The necessity of a mental shift from domination to joint membership
  • The acknowledgement of the citizenship of all creatures, including humans, in the natural world
  • The sense of responsibility to protect the land and all its parts

Furthermore, an empathic relationship with the land involves ethical duty that imposes restraints on us, forces us to pull in the reins on our personal desires. We would have to come to consider nature worthy of our ‘sacrifice.’ In essence it would become incumbent upon us to value behaviors geared to arriving at a state of harmony between us and all of nature, behaviors that would bind us to the care of the land.

Empathy towards nature may start with looking, really looking. A conscious, mindful looking that Rachel Corbett, in her book The Invention of Empathy (2016), refers to as the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart wherein perception leads to emotional connection…..

A kayaker achieves instinctive understanding with a loon. A trainer bonds with his horses. We peer into the eyes of a pond turtle and tumble headlong into Terry Tempest Williams’ threshold of shared existence.

Once such seeing is achieved, the challenge is to hold on to the connection; watching more, looking further, paying more attention, going deeper into the gift of sight, exploiting the depth perception and peripheral vision that might give us the ability to take in our entire surroundings, to transcend self-interest and to build bonds.