Year of the Empath

Much has been made of how new media and technology has muted our ability to connect in a real way, but I was grateful to have Facebook deliver the sad news of the deaths of Marv Davidov and Daniel Levy over the weekend. The old man and young man didn’t know each other, but within hours of their passing both touched, yanked and brought hearts together in a real way, as if we were all sitting shiva together in a massive mourning room that spanned the globe.

Davidov was the 80-year-old peace activist who passed away after a life’s work of fighting the good fight against war and corporate greed. Levy was the 21-year-old son of Honeydogs bandleader and songwriter Adam Levy, who took his life after his too-short time on earth working as an artist and painter. The outpouring of support on the social network was real, instant and comforting, if not instantly healing, as folks lit virtual candles, offered food, wisdom and any other sustenance they could muster via the connective thread that is the Internet.

Fast? Absolutely. Cold? Hardly.

The truth is, the beauty expressed was a shocking alternative to what passes for public discourse these days, and a reminder of the goodness of the human soul at its purest. Many of the people who gathered around the Davidov and Levy families were artists, musicians, writers, poets and other thin-skinned and tender-hearted beings. Accustomed as they are to working with deep feelings of love and loss, they were able to buck the modern-day trend of stuffing or shouting over emotions, and get on with the work of being empaths.

Empath. The word derives from the English word empathy (not sympathy), which itself was first coined at the surprisingly late date of 1909. Pop culture introduced the idea with the Star Trek episode “The Empath” (1968) — a muddled theological parable (complete with Captain Kirk crucifixion scene) centered around a willowy creature nicknamed Gem. “It fits, Jim. She must be an empath,” Dr. McCoy tells Kirk. “Her nervous system is so sensitive and so highly responsive that she can actually feel our emotional and physical reactions. They become part of her.”

In the real world, author and doctor Judith Orloff wrote, “Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme, and are less apt to intellectualize feelings. Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually attuned and good listeners. If you want heart, empaths have got it. The trademark of empaths is that they know where you’re coming from.”

Just in time. As American culture continues to coarsen our collective soul, as the information stream becomes a white water raft ride that bombards with stimuli, opinions, screaming talking heads and non-listeners, one could do worse than to follow the path of the empath, who values above all else feeling, deep emotion, and staying in touch with the self and therefore all humanity via meditation, prayer and creativity.  

Important stuff, to be sure, given that by all accounts, “the irreducible individual,” as “Dark Nights of the Soul” author Thomas Moore names us, is in danger of being reduced at every turn. “At one time or another,” writes Moore, “most people go through a period of sadness, trial, loss, or frustration that is so disturbing and long-lasting that it can be called a dark night of the soul.”

Look around. It’s no stretch to say that the human race as we’ve known it has been undergoing a dark night of the soul, but the good news is that, as Moore points out time and again, such night sea journeys can bear very rich fruit. Therefore, it’s useful to think of the past as just that — the past — and realize that the grace shown around the Levy-Davidov techno-wakes, among many other daily glimmers of hope, is just one sign that the Mayans may have been right and that the world as we know it will end this year — not in death, but in a rebirth of positive energy, awareness, and, yes, empathy.

Or maybe that’s just me. Utopian me. But as I repeat-play Billy Bragg’s “I Keep Faith In You” and Neil Young’s “Change Your Mind,” I hope our dark nights can lead to sunnier days in the new year, and that we can go forward with Dr. McCoy’s closing line to “The Empath” as a guide:

“Well, personally, I find it fascinating that with all their scientific knowledge and advances, that in the end it was good old-fashioned human emotion that they valued the most.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.