Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us – a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain – it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to this sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say going through the motions – this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgement of effort – the labor, the motions, the dance – of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.
Basically, this is a reminder that loving your neighbor as yourself, and even loving yourself, is a choice you have to make. Sometimes love is easy, and sometimes love is work.