Empathy is contagious, and matters most of all.
About a moon ago, a kitten mewled its way out of a deep tight spot and into my family’s hearts. We’ll never know how it got trapped and left to die. It was over a day before we recognized its faint sounds as a persistent cry for help, and zeroed in on their source. When the kitten heard us approach, she mewled louder and faster. Shining our light, we found her pacing back and forth, alone seven feet down in a narrow space a few feet long and about eight inches wide, no way in or out. She cried all the harder. We weren’t looking to care for a stray kitten, but it would have taken a heart of stone to leave her there. We couldn’t help but feel for her.
How do you extract a kitten from a narrow hole? You lower a plastic jar on a string, and land it on its side. If the kitten is smart or fated enough, it will walk into the jar. You then pull up the string, lifting out the jar. So it happened. Seconds after we laid the jar on its side, the kitten walked in. She came out headfirst, hind legs sticking out akimbo. Undignified, but effective. Moses was lifted from the Nile to become a prince of Egypt. Our kitten came out of a small, dry hole to become princess of our urban cottage farm.
One small kitten can raise a surprising amount of ruckus. She strums an emotional chord that resonates in the theme of family, smashing social barriers between diverse species. The bonds are palpable. Raising a baby isn’t easy in any kind of family, but we empathize with the baby’s needs and find joy in helping it thrive. We pick up on her emotions, feeling joy when she is happy, and concern when she is unhappy or unwell. Bonding happens instinctively.
Whether mutual love is conscious or instinctive doesn’t much change how it operates on an emotional level. I doubt the kitten wonders about what love is, why she wants to cuddle and play with humans, or whether she belongs with us. But …I catch her doubting her instincts now and then, measuring them against her experience. She is no feline automaton. She’s smart and sassy and soulfully alive. She chooses to stick around and bond with us, just as we choose to make room and care for her.
When people adhere by choice, their society furthers mutual benefit. They stick together because everybody is better off that way. Getting together for mutual benefit doesn’t come without problems. People being people, grievances arise. Can we resolve our grievances and cooperate on common problems without aggression? That question lies at the heart of stateless society. As political scientists have long observed, “state” can be understood as a monopoly on violence, or more exactly, on aggression. Exclusive police power has certain advantages, the best evidence for which is the global prevalence of states. Thankfully, reducing social aggression doesn’t depend on an impossible contradiction like eliminating the state forcefully. It depends on developing widespread capacity and will for non-violent solutions to social conflict. The state withers naturally, wherever non-aggression thrives.
I’ve studied and written about conflict resolution without aggression since 2013. I’ve managed to rediscover what some have known for millennia: all peaceful coexistence takes is a few very simple rules any 5-year-old can understand. Following these rules doesn’t violate any of the laws of physics, psychology or economics, or require perfect human beings. With community-run ledgers, widespread decentralized order is right under our noses, ready for us as soon as we are ready for it. If kittens can bond with humans instinctively, humans should be able to bond among themselves. When we don’t, it’s because we fail to empathize.
Not enough empathy out there in public discourse. Too much finger-pointing, evil assumptions, and flat-out lying. Along with an environment of social apathy, envy, hatred, fear and distrust. You can blame this or that but in the end it comes down to us. How we choose to treat each other. And that includes what we say to and about one another. Let’s not swell the chorus of hurtful words. Maybe writing about how loving kittens matter(s), so to speak, will put a tiny seed of empathy out in the briar patch. Worth sowing because of what it might return, despite knowing it might never so much as sprout. Sow enough seeds, and some will bear fruit.
Empathy feeds off the emotional energy of each person — or kitten — invested. Making room for empathy unleashes power when the object of affection reciprocates. Good things happen, building confidence in the bond. We do things we would never do otherwise because our love energizes us. Empathy moves us. It crushed our fears that taking in a stray kitten would sicken us with allergies and infest us with fleas. Sure, we’ve had to deal with issues like that. No worthwhile commitment comes without price. But investment also brings rewards. Her playful antics have filled our house with laughter. Most of all, she reminds us of the power of love.
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