Empathy at the Olympics by Zach Terrell

A month after the Olympics, I can’t remember every gold medalist who heard their anthem ring. But, I also can’t get Felix Sánchez’s off my mind. In Beijing 2008, the morning of his preliminary heat in the 400-meter hurdles, Sánchez of the Dominican Republic woke up to news that his grandmother, who raised him as a child, had died. Sánchez, the defending gold-medalist of the same event four years prior, ended up placing 22nd overall. “I ran terribly. I had cried the whole day. I was very emotional,” he recalled. “After that Olympics, I made a promise that I was going to win a medal for grandma.”

This summer in London, at the age of 35, he made good on his promise, winning the gold medal in a tight sprint. After crossing the finish line, an exhausted and rheumy-eyed Sánchez knelt to the ground, pulled out a photograph of his grandmother that he had pinned beneath his bib, placed it on the ground in front of him, and kissed it. Atop the podium during the medals ceremony, Sánchez began weeping uncontrollably burying his head in his hands and seizing with emotion. When the crowd became aware of Sánchez’s slurry of pain and joy, they stood and gave a rousing ovation in support.

What kind of awareness did the crowd had? To put it like a philosopher, what is it that makes the data of foreign experience comprehendible, and after being comprehended, quickens our bodies to stand and clap or cry, pointing back to the basic nature of the foreign act? How does one come to identify with a remote consciousness?

Edith Stein says the answer lies in the phenomenon of empathy.1 The fact that “empathy” has become a flat term today is curious but true. Even so, Stein would have baulked at the idea of empathy being as simple as we have made it today. To her, empathy is “an act of pure consciousness”—that is to say, we do it all the time. Whereas conventional wisdom has conflated the term with something like sympathy—feeling pity for someone else’s misfortune—Stein conceived of empathy as a ubiquitous human function, a profound talent we have for engaging our world and rationally acknowledging the merit of otherness, or “things outside of ourselves.” In this way, sympathy is epiphenomenal to empathy.

Stein became a bellwether on the phenomenon of empathy by holding to the conviction that the best of philosophy looks simply and seriously at things as they are; her genius lies in her ability to scrutinize the obvious—as in the case of Félix Sánchez. But where else might we find ourselves acting empathetically?

Reading is one example. “My own eyes are not enough for me,” says C.S. Lewis. “I will see through the eyes of others. Literary experience heals the wound without undermining the privilege of individuality. In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.”2 Here you are, an American in New York City in 2012 and you’re reading Swamplandia, for example, and suddenly you’re taken to the coruscating edge of reality—otherwise known as Florida—where you become a little girl whose alligator-wrestling mother has just died of cancer. “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identity,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson. In this way, books widen our gaze, or as King Lear says, they expose one’s self to “feel what wretches feel.” The literary imagination opens up an ethical sensitivity in us, giving us other ways of thinking, living, and being.3 Quite the talent we possess. Our ability to empathize throws reading a book into a hermeneutic circle from text to action to text.4

Or take writing, for a less obvious example. Could we really create a believable fictional character without the ability to first become that character, to imagine her personality, the way she moves and makes lucid decisions? Could we create a compelling narrative or persuasive essay without the ability to first imagine an audience and anticipate a reader’s response? “Writing well is a long exercise in considering possibilities and empathizing,” says John Trimble in what is now one of the most classic writing manuals in print.5 He continues, “Here, in a nutshell, lies the ultimate reason for bad writing: the natural tendency as a writer to think primarily of oneself—and hence to write primarily for oneself.” The veteran writer schools herself to be other-oriented, cultivating her empathic sensibilities into comprehendible foreign experiences.

So what is it about empathy that is so vital? Why should we care that we possess such a talent?

Without empathy, and without stages like the Olympics on which to exercise it, many things become improbable, not least of which is a global ethic. Why? Because the viewer is always viewing. Different philosophers have called this different names: solipsism, the egocentric predicament, and epistemological relativism. Put simply, we cannot escape ourselves. You are the inimitable center of your own universe. But, it is the ability to empathize that ensures that you don’t become the center of everyone else’s, and that your vision of the world is not entirely opaque to another’s. Yes, the viewer is always viewing, but empathy reorients the angle from which one views.

Stein’s conception of empathy is similar to what Derrida and Lévinas called alterity: a phenomenological term that implies the ability to distinguish between the “I” and “not-I”, and consequently to assume the existence of an alternative viewpoint. Similar, too, is the Kantian notion of “enlarged thought”, which, in contrast with a “restricted” vision, is one that manages to displace itself, “to put itself in the place of another.” French philosopher Luc Ferry sums it up well: “Whereas the restricted self remains bogged down in its place of origin, the enlarged spirit agrees to unseat its initial and inherited way of seeing and to remove itself from the closed circle of egocentrism. By doing this, the philosopher (or plebeian) is able to penetrate customs and values remote from his own; then, returning to himself, he can be aware of himself in a less dogmatic way,” and appreciate an other with renewed depth.6

Whatever name you give it, the point remains the same: without broadly exercising the imagination, we exclude the possibility of relational wisdom altogether. As Lewis said, individuality is a wound but also a privilege. The Olympics and other global platforms are a place to heal that wound without undermining the privilege—a place to mutually identify with a community or person with which, in many ways, one may be in utter disagreement. They give us the chance to be more generous with the scale at which empathy is exerted. That, to my mind, is something more than just Félix Sánchez can be thankful for.