Ponder for a moment -- if you haven't already spent the last week doing so -- the image of all those brightly colored Christmas gifts under various trees somewhere in Connecticut that will never be opened by the children they were intended for.

If that doesn't break your heart, even a little bit, congratulations, you're a machine.

Forgive the blatant emotional button-pushing here, but that powerful punch of heartache, dread and compassion that accompanies such an image, that's called "empathy," and it is the word of the season.

The horrifying Newtown, Conn., shooting would have shaken the American soul no matter when it occurred. But it's proximity to Christmas -- which is, after all, supposed to be a celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace -- has added a dimension to this tragedy that, dare we say it, may have long-lasting and far-reaching effects. Maybe empathy is the candle that will provide the light for us to emerge from this age of darkness.

We've been having a lot of silly arguments in recent years about the meaning of Christmas. But beyond those arguments, this is the season that everyone, Christians and non-Christians alike, is compelled to shake off the default setting of self-worship and think of others in a meaningful way. And, beyond all the anger and emotion about the gun debate, that's what's happening in social media and the traditional media. It's happening in workplaces and on street corners and around kitchen tables. People are expressing empathy for the victims of Newtown and the other previous spasms of mass killing.


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Suddenly, there's a crack or two appearing in the wall we've built around this All-About-Me culture.

Empathy is no picnic. It's natural for humans to avoid pain, not add to their own by taking on the pain of others. And when you're talking about the violent death of children, there's no empathetic response in the world big enough to properly address that. But pain is a burden, and, like all burdens, it is always lighter when someone else offers to share it. It's tough and awkward and inconvenient to show real empathy.

At UC Santa Cruz, there's a program called "Rumi's Field," in which 24 undergrads live together in one residence hall with the primary purpose of practicing empathy. Anyone who watches a 4-year-old hug the family dog has to wonder why we need to teach and practice something that comes so naturally to children. But the impetus of Rumi's Field comes from a study at the University of Michigan that found that today's college students score about 40 percent lower on tests for basic human empathy than college students of the 1980s and '90s.

Does this really surprise anyone? These findings seem to coincide with a period when the American market economy, already an eat-or-be-eaten environment, moved into an age of steroidal excess, in which competition for every job, every bonus, every college admission became an episode of "Survivor." In such a system, empathy is for suckers. What do winners gain by crying crocodile tears for losers?

The name of the UCSC program comes from a line in a poem by the great Persian poet Rumi that reads "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there." That's a field that's hard to find for a lot of us. It's often hidden by giant briar bushes of self-pity and nursed resentments. And often the company is more fun in those well-populated meadows of learned callousness.

Indeed, there are those who may believe that we actually suffer from a glut of empathy, and that most people are looking for empathy for problems that don't deserve it. This phenomenon is mercilessly mocked on the Internet by a meme called "First World Problems" -- i.e., "Staying with relatives. They don't know their Wi-Fi password."

Of course, it's a lot easier to join the Get-Over-It choir and mock narcissism than to practice real empathy, largely because we don't really know what is required of us. Does sharing someone's problems mean you're on the hook for finding a solution to them? Does helping alleviate someone's pain commit you to being a source of comfort, as if you're some kind of walking, talking bottle of Vicodin? Children don't engage in this kind of calculation. They just embrace empathy for its own sake -- until they grow older and go over to casual cruelty, the other side of the street.

Empathy is merely a human impulse and there's always been something about December -- Christmas, Hanukkah, the solstice, the new year -- that gives that impulse power. The Newtown shooting has given an awful shape and clarity to the need for empathy and compassion and it might emerge as the catalyst to a wider realization that empathy is not a seasonal thing, but a measure of humanity often chased away by the demands of being an adult in modern times.

Empathy for the friends and families of those lost to the violence in Newtown is a good starting point to turn our culture around -- though, empathy for the shooter himself and his benighted mother, well, that's the graduate degree.

Still, for most of us, there is some moment in December, whatever our religious beliefs or lack thereof, when we at least peek over the shrubs into Rumi's field and face the undeniable truth that we are all struggling against pain and loneliness, that we're all mortal and that we are all in this -- whatever "this" is -- together.

Empathy is simply the acknowledgement of that simple, eternal human bond. Most of us this holiday season will hug the family dog. But the circumstances of this painful month may compel many to go further. And therein lies hope.

Contact Wallace Baine at wbaine@santacruzsentinel.com.