The nature of empathy

By way of a link from Bill Cronon on Twitter I came to read this essay by Ian McEwan, written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It is less a story about the events themselves than a meditation on what they say about us as human beings:

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion: you are under the bedclothes, unable to sleep, and you are crouching in the brushed-steel lavatory at the rear of the plane, whispering a final message to your loved one. There is only that one thing to say, and you say it. All else is pointless. [- – -]

If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed. It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

Cronon calls it an “extraordinary piece”. It is. If you haven’t read it you should.