There are things we know with nothing more than the proof of our own bodies. We know the meaning of chaos because we once stuck a fork into an electric socket. We know that human extinction is inevitable because we did it again. We know that people who say, “I love you” really mean, “I need you to love me.” Just as we know that people who say, “There’s more to life than food” are…wrong.
We call this kind of knowledge “empirical,” from the Ancient Greek, ἐμπειρία, or empeiria, which translates as both “experience” and “experiment.” I love that synergy: we experiment with reality through the sensory act of perception. Knowledge is not so much drawn from experience as it is negotiated through the media of our senses. Which isn’t to say that our perceptions, or the knowledge that results from them, are accurate. Our senses, like those of other species, evolved to meet our own specific set of needs. Which is to say, they are part and parcel of what makes us human.
We hear a great deal these days about the need for greater empathy. We see our institutions—indeed, our very existence—threatened by our individual and collective inability to see the world through others’ eyes. Some wonder if such a thing is even possible. Some argue that it is enough simply to acknowledge and honor others’ perceptions, regardless of whether we can understand or identify with them, because all humans are entitled to that much. Given how self-centered human beings are, that seems a lot to wish for. Still, I have hope. I believe we will endure, despite our tendency to make the same mistakes over and over, and despite our persistent inability to recognize the things that most matter until we lose them. Those are emotional and intellectual failures that we may learn to overcome, or not.
But the body knows. It signals dread to the heart and hamstrings long before the object of fear appears, and its skin prickles with desire long before the mind fixes on an object. It says “run” and “seek,” even when mounded up on the couch, watching a seventh straight episode of Project Runway, season 12. Despite the twin pillars of fear and laziness that shape so many of our decisions, it drags us along, demanding interface. Regardless of our impulse to curse those who do not conform with our ideal of behavior, it forces our eyes to meet the glance of strangers, if only for a moment, seeking some sort of meaningful connection. Irrespective of our persistent vision of a future cocooned in comfort and surrounded by lovers, family, friends, and well-wishers, our bodies demand adventures of the senses, whether at the top of a mountain or at the bottom of a bag of Doritos (and if you call that comfort eating, ask yourself why you don’t stop until you feel sick).
The body’s way of knowing—which is to say, through the friction and vibrations of the senses—pushes us to speak when it would be better to keep our mouths shut, to engage when it would be easier to retreat, and to direct our attention, and by turns our feelings, toward those who suffer and want, even as our brains try to convince us that whatever action we might take would be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Our bodies know, perhaps because they are more immediately part of the grand scheme of things than our measly brains. If experience is experiment, they are the lab and its apparatus. The results they present are the facts. All our brains can do is posit theories about them.
Which is not to say our bodies know better. They have a limited view, and lack imagination. They feel, and translate that feeling into knowledge, relying on our brains to draw out kernels of wisdom and insight. But where brains drift and doubt, unsure whether to apply the curious fork to wall socket or feast, bodies are persistent, and insistent. They insist on identifying and prioritizing our needs. Indeed, they help us to survive, when our brains are occupied elsewhere, by warning us against the chaos of the electric current, and driving us toward the communal table.
So doing, our bodies help us to learn to live with each other, to recognize how our needs and the needs of the collective are one. As our minds prompt us to run from the danger we perceive in others, our bodies remind us that safety and comfort can only be found in others.
All to say, I suspect empathy isn’t about transcending the self, but embodying it. And that what saves us in the end may not be our ability to love others, but our need to be loved.