National Commentary

Empathy in the Face of Evil, the Universe’s ‘Dark Matter?’

As dark as things appear to be right now in terms of a whole array of situations on this tiny orb, it is vital to affirm the reality that humanity remains in its best situation ever to fix things. As an amazing species, we nonetheless come with no shortage of failures, of cruelties, of miscalculations. But the seemingly overwhelming cascade of atrocities and willful evils we seem beset with now and who knows what’s going to happen next occurs in the context of an unprecedented ability to know and be aware of them. That’s cause for hope in the long term.

We are able to see and address, if as yet ineffectively, atrocities in our own time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, of seemingly endless mass shootings of innocents in our own culture, of pervasive, long-standing abuses of children by authoritative religious figures, the latest being by leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, and in general of instances of “man’s inhumanity to man.” All of these instances have, as they say, “come to light.” In the eons past, we can be sure that aspect almost never happened.

Among the plethora of news reports and commentaries that have begun to flood our news feeds in the next months as the James Webb Space Telescope becomes fully operational for the first time, showing us corners of the cosmos heretofore inaccessible to us, a lot of new stuff has already been issuing forth with potentially astonishing consequences. For one, the last century’s discovery of “dark matter” comprising a massive percentage of the content of the universe has led to the novel, and apparently scientifically valid, proposition that its content is “information.”

I don’t pretend to be an astrophysicist, so my readers should seek them out for more precise descriptions of all this. Wikipedia, for example, begins an entry by trying to explain that “dark matter” is “a hypothetical form of matter thought to account for approximately 85 percent of the matter in the universe. Dark matter is called ‘dark’ because it does not appear to interact with the electromagnetic field, which means it does not absorb, reflect, or emit electromagnetic radiation (like light) and is, therefore, difficult to detect.”

When “dark matter,” whose necessity arises from the observation of galaxies and the fact they are held together and don’t simply fly apart, is described as “information,” it requires extraordinary capacities for explanation. But since this is all, at this infant stage of our knowledge, as-yet unproven hypotheses, it is fair game to suggest rational alternatives. One such alternative, perhaps mainly semantic, might be that “dark matter” is evidence of a “glue” binding the universe which, in our human experience, might also go by a familiar experiential term we use in our global social environment, the term “empathy.”

One can’t see, touch or feel empathy, so in that sense, it is not part of the known physical universe, emphasis on “known physical,” in the same way that “dark matter” is not. Yet, as intelligent species of this universe, we have all come to know what empathy is, and that it is very real.

I could wax on about empathy, and often do, but in summary permit me to describe it as an invisible tug on and within our species’ behavior, on our hearts, so to speak, that causes us to do things for others besides ourselves, to share in a common lot, to reach out beyond a mere selfish self-interest.

In other words, it is a binding element, much as “dark matter” is described to be, which empowers individuals to become “greater than themselves” in the exercise of a more universal good, but usually carried out through individual acts involving specific situations and persons in our experience.

Even rooting for your favorite sports team is a manifestation of this. The fan transfers to him or herself the striving of the athlete and “feels his/her pain” or joy based on a performance. That’s evidence of the substantive reality of empathy.

Evil in our culture are forces designed to blunt or kill that substantial reality, or to skew it away from the natural object of its pursuit, a general good.