I was eight years old when my parents began divorcing, but twelve by the time they finished. They were born ten thousand miles apart—my mother in southern Peru near the Chilean border, my father in the six-month-old nation of Pakistan. Twenty-five years later, Washington State University granted scholarships to students from the world’s poorest nations, giving one to my mother. Around the same time, my dad’s father gifted him a one-way ticket to the United States, and just enough money for a semester at WSU. They traveled from Lima and Lahore—each city about the size of Los Angeles—to the woodsy, sleepy town of Pullman.
Both of my parents felt disoriented in their new home. My dad had been middle class in Pakistan but was penniless by American standards. On many mornings, he’d buy three hot dogs for one dollar at a local restaurant, spreading them out over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breaking Muslim norms hurt, but he couldn’t afford any other option. My mom was assigned a host family to ease the transition, but they lived eighty miles from campus. She spent much of her time alone, studying. WSU held a welcome reception for its international scholars. My dad showed up for the food, my mom for the company.
They married and moved to suburban Massachusetts, where I was born. But as they became more comfortable with the United States, they grew less comfortable with each other. My father began a computer hardware company and worked eighteen hours a day. His American dream culminated in a beige Mercedes and a massive peach-colored stucco house, both of which struck my mother as grotesque. After not seeing much of my father for a few years, she decided to see even less of him.
As my parents receded from each other, they scorched the earth between them. Outside of court they studiously avoided contact. My dad would wait in my mom’s driveway at a dedicated time each week, I would walk outside, and my mom would lock the door behind me, careful to not show herself. When I was thirteen, my father’s mother died. That weekend when he arrived to pick me up, my mother walked outside and they hugged. It was the only time I remember them looking at each other in a ten-year span.
I shuttled back and forth between their houses, but I might as well have been moving between parallel universes—each defined by its own priorities, fears, and grievances. My mom is quintessentially Peruvian and values family above all else. She lost herself in anxiety over how the divorce would affect me, picking out signs that I was in pain and tallying those in a mental ledger of the damage my father had done. In my father’s world, intellect and ambition mattered most. He often told me that where he came from, the student who scored highest on a big exam made it to college, but the kid who scored second best ended up on the street. When my grades slumped, he wondered aloud whether it would be worth the money to send me to college. He had broken his back to give my mother and me what he had never had, a favor we repaid by demoting him to half villain, half ATM. How could we not see that?
My parents each tried to conscript me into their war. They told me the secrets they were keeping from each other. They bought favor by letting me break the other’s rules. They vented bitterly and, when I didn’t join in, accused me of being on the other’s side. I think all three of us believed that at some point I would have to choose one parent, giving up on ever really knowing the other.
In the classic 1983 film WarGames, a young Matthew Broderick hacks into “Joshua,” an artificial intelligence program that, unbeknownst to him, is plugged into NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. He plays a simulation of thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, nearly setting off World War III in the process. With Joshua set to take over NORAD’s missile system and fire, Broderick convinces it to first try out every strategy. Joshua quickly realizes that no matter what either nation does, they both end up obliterated. “Strange game,” the program reflects. “The only way to win is not to play.”
So with my parents, I decided not to play—or at least not in the way they wanted. As they fought through me, I fought to hold on to both of them. Rather than picking a side, I tried to understand these two good people, who were trying to do right by me despite the pain they were in. While at my mom’s house, I picked up the rules that governed her heart and mind, and made them true for myself. When I visited my dad, I adapted to his world. It was hard work. Like so many children of divorce, I was pulled in different directions by a centrifugal force. Sometimes it was hard to know what I believed. But I learned to tune myself to each of my parents’ frequencies, and managed to stay connected to both of them, even as their ties to each other disintegrated.
When I think back on those days, I’m filled with gratitude. That two people’s experiences could differ so drastically, yet both be true and deep, is maybe the most important lesson I’ve ever learned.
Imagine putting on a pair of goggles that work like thermal sensors but pick up emotion instead of body heat. You could watch, in glowing infrared, as anger, embarrassment, and joy bloomed inside people. If you kept watching, you would see that feelings do not stay put in any one person. When a friend cries in front of you or tells you a hilarious story, their voice and expressions leap through the air between you and into your brain, changing you in the process. You take on their emotions, decode their thoughts, and worry about their welfare. In other words, you empathize.
Most people understand empathy as more or less a feeling in itself—I feel your pain—but it’s more complicated than that. “Empathy” actually refers to several different ways we respond to each other. These include identifying what others feel (cognitive empathy), sharing their emotions (emotional empathy), and wishing to improve their experiences (empathetic concern).
I can’t know for sure how you experience the color blue, let alone exactly how you feel when you’re excited or frightened. Our private worlds circle each other in wobbly orbits but never touch. When two people become friends, their worlds inch closer together; when my parents split up, theirs drifted apart. Empathy is the mental superpower that overcomes this distance. Through it we voyage to others’ worlds and make guesses about how it feels to be them. An impressive amount of the time, we get it right. Listening to a stranger tell an emotional story, we can describe how they feel with considerable accuracy. Glimpsing a face, we can intuit what a person enjoys and how much they can be trusted.
Empathy’s most important role, though, is to inspire kindness: our tendency to help each other, even at a cost to ourselfes. Kindness can often feel like a luxury—the ultimate soft skill in a hard world. It puzzled Charles Darwin. According to his theory of natural selection, organisms should protect themselves above all else. Helping others did not fit into that equation, especially when we risked our own safety to do so. As Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “He who was ready to sacrifice his life . . . rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.”
In fact, kindness is one of the animal kingdom’s most vital survival skills. Newborns are little bundles of need, and remain mostly helpless for days (geese), months (kangaroos), or decades (us). Either parents sacrifice to help them survive, or they risk leaving no offspring to inherit their selfish nature. The same goes for other kin: When an animal helps its relatives, it ensures the survival of its own genes. Unrelated animals can also benefit from acting kindly, especially when doing so builds alliances between them. Working together, they can find food, protect one another, and thrive in ways loners simply can’t.
In these cases, kindness is smart, but that still doesn’t explain why any one animal chooses to help another in a given moment. A mother squirrel doesn’t know that her genes will be passed to the next generation, so why nurture her pups? A vervet monkey can’t calculate the odds that a neighbor will return his favor, so why bother? Empathy is nature’s answer to that question. When one creature shares another’s emotions, seeing pain feels like being in pain, and helping feels like being helped.
Empathic experience undergirds kind action; it’s a relationship far older than our species. A rat will freeze—a sign of anxiety— when its cage-mate is zapped with electric shocks. Thanks to that response, they also help each other, even giving up bits of chocolate to relieve the cage-mate’s distress. Mice, elephants, monkeys, and ravens all exhibit both empathy and kind behavior.
In humans, empathy took an evolutionary quantum leap. That’s a good thing for us, because physically, we’re unremarkable. At the dawn of our species, we huddled together in groups of a few families. We had neither sharp teeth, nor wings, nor the strength of our ape cousins. And we had competition: Just thirty thousand years ago, at least five other large-brained human species shared the planet with us. But over millennia, we sapiens changed to make connecting easier. Our testosterone levels dropped, our faces softened, and we became less aggressive. We developed larger eye whites than other primates, so we could easily track one another’s gaze, and intricate facial muscles that allowed us to better express emotion. Our brains developed to give us a more precise understanding of each other’s thoughts and feelings.
As a result, we developed vast empathic abilities. We can travel into the minds of not just friends and neighbors but also enemies, strangers, and even imaginary people in films or novels. This helped us become the kindest species on Earth. Chimpanzees, for instance, work together and console each other during painful moments, but their goodwill is limited. They rarely give each other food, and though they may be kind to their troop, are vicious outside of it. By contrast, humans are world-champion collaborators, helping each other far more than any other species. This became our secret weapon. As individuals we were not much to behold, but together, we were magnificent—unbeatable super-organisms who hunted woolly mammoths, built suspension bridges, and took over the planet.