‘‘The ability to identify with another person’s feelings.’’ That is how Mary Gordon’s organization, Roots of Empathy, defines the elemental but elusive human quality that gives the group its name. Empathy is a simple concept, which is actually why it has such potential to change the world.

Last year, I became captivated by Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Empathic Civilization, in which he explains that empathy is not a quaint behavior to be trotted out during intermittent holiday visits to a food bank or during a post-disaster telethon. Instead, it lies at the very core of human existence. What Rifkin articulates—and backs up with scientific evidence—is something I’ve long believed.

Indeed, I wrote a book dedicated to exploring what I called the Fourth Instinct—the instinct that compels us to go beyond our impulses for survival, sex, and power and drives us to expand the boundaries of our caring to include our communities and the world around us.

And in the years since I wrote my book, the role empathy plays in our lives has only grown more important. In fact, in this time of economic hardship, political instability, and rapid technological change, empathy is the one quality we most need if we’re going to survive and flourish in the
twenty-first century.

Just before he died, Jonas Salk defined the transitional period we’re in as moving from Epoch A (based on survival and competition) to Epoch B (based on collaboration and meaning). And technological advances, including the advent of social media, have enabled us to collaborate in ways that would have been unimaginable only a decade ago. As Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, puts it, ‘‘Twitter is not a triumph of tech; it’s a triumph of humanity.’’

When people used to offer to join Mother Teresa in her work with the needy of Calcutta, she would often respond: ‘‘Find your own Calcutta.’’ That is, care for those in need where you are. Thousands are doing this, all across America, in ways that illustrate and even amplify the possibilities of Salk’s Epoch B. People like Eric Jirgens, an interior designer in Detroit who found himself getting a lot fewer jobs than he used to in his recession-ravaged city. So he put his underutilized skills to work transforming a women’s shelter into a beautiful and more welcoming space for the women who have to temporarily call it home. And Jacqueline Novogratz, who, as head of the Acumen Fund, has combined her expertise in finance with her gift for empathy, investing from Kenya to Karachi and Dubai in start-ups that help improve the lives of those unable to do so on their own.

And Cheryl Jacobs, who along with her work as a torts lawyer at a big firm had been doing pro bono work with the highly successful Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program in Philadelphia, which helps homeowners facing foreclosure navigate the legal process. After being laid off, Jacobs took on even more foreclosure cases, eventually opening her own practice dedicated to helping people keep their homes.

I have been lucky enough, in the course of my travels around the country and around the world, to meet and work with many people who have bolstered my faith in our collective ability to confront the crises we face. And I am increasingly convinced that the solutions to our problems are not going to come from the political, media, and financial institutions that continue to fail us. The solutions are going to come from each of us doing our part—making a personal commitment and taking action. And to summon our better angels, there are two essential ingredients we’ll need: innovation nurtured by an entrepreneurial spirit, and empathy nurtured by a strong civil society.

The individuals and organizations described in “Rippling” are inspiring illustrations of both. They have mastered the gift of identifying with other people’s feelings. In spite of the challenges ahead, when I read their stories I am reminded of the combustible creativity that results when empathy meets imagination, and I am filled with hope.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World by Beverly Schwartz.  Copyright (c)  2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved.