Applejack: [clears throat] Dear Princess Celestia,
We’re writin’ to you because today we all learned a little somethin’ about friendship.
Fluttershy: We learned that you should take your friends’ worries seriously.
Rainbow Dash: Even if you don’t think that she has anything to worry about.
This part of the “Letter to Celestia” from “Lesson Zero” is, with no doubt, my favorite moral in the entirety of the series. It’s message is not only, in my view, the fundamental lesson behind most of the other major lessons of the show, but it is also probably the one with the most widespread applicability. What exactly about this lesson, however, has me giving it such praise? The reason is because, in a sense, it is advocating for placing sympathy and empathy in a central role in friendship.
Sympathy, Empathy, and Theory of Mind
While there is some variation in the exact definition for sympathy, for our purposes I will be using this: “feeling sorrow or concern for the distressed or needy other”, with said feeling occurring due to a “heightened awareness of the suffering of another person as something that needs to be alleviated.” What this means is that sympathy is the sense of sorrow or concern that one feels for those who are in need. This is then combined with the need to alleviate the conditions causing the distress, leading to what is dubbed “pro-social behavior”; voluntary behavior intended to benefit another.
Here is how the letter from “Lesson Zero” fits within this view of sympathy. Fluttershy’s part of the letter can be interpreted as showing the “feeling sorrow or concern” part of the definition by stating how one should be concerned about a friend’s distress. Rainbow Dash’s segment, meanwhile, emphasizes the fact that sympathy does not require a congruence of emotions; even if you don’t feel the same way, you are still capable of feeling concern for another person’s distress. The only aspect that is missing is the pro-social behavior, but that was already shown earlier in the episode by Spike’s actions; he attempted to talk Twilight down and, when that failed, brought in Celestia to do so.
Note that sympathy is a related but distinct concept to that of empathy, at least when dealing with more modern literature*. Empathy tends to be viewed as the ability to recognize the emotions being experienced by others, positive or negative. Most of the time people also tend to think of empathy in what is called affective empathy, which is the sharing of an appropriate emotion. This sharing leads to congruence in emotion, with the focus being on the other person’s situation. While empathy can lead to sympathy, empathy doesn’t necessarily involve any kind of action on that part of the person feeling the empathetic emotion.
Related to these concepts is another important concept to why this is one of my favorite lessons; theory of mind
In simplest terms, theory of mind is the ability to theorize that others have, well, a mind. It is the ability to analogize that if I have beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge, etc. that serve as causes of my behavior, then the same applies to others. Now there are several theories on exactly how this works, but for the purpose of this article we don’t need to focus on those. Instead, the only thing of importance is to understand that developing a theory of mind is absolutely vital to developing a sense of empathy and sympathy. After all, recognizing and understanding that other people have their own emotions and experiences is kind of needed to be able to have an emotional reaction to them.
Why This is My Favorite Lesson
So now that we have all these concepts explained, we’re still left with the question of, “Why do I consider this an important lesson?” I could answer this by discussing the role of sympathy in utilitarian ethics (which is my own personal system), but I’ll admit that wasn’t why it was my favorite lesson. I had actually forgotten about that until I prepared research for this article, though I did consider talking about Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” at one point. Instead, my reason for liking it so much are a lot simpler; it is probably the most powerful but difficult moral lesson the show has provided.
For all the talk about sympathy and empathy, at the end of the day our ability to recognize and understand the emotions of others is imperfect. It’s a simple result of the fact that the only mind we have full access to is our own (conscious/subconscious split notwithstanding). Because of this imperfection, our attempts to relate to others and attribute motivations and reasons behind their behavior can be difficult. Add in the huge amount of biases in our thinking, motivations to protect self-image and self-esteem, etc., it can be quite easy to understand why recognizing that other people have desires and emotions different from ours as well as giving them an equal level of concern and respect as our own is difficult.
But being able to respect others concerns, even if they do not agree with our own, is a vital part of not only maintaining healthy and beneficial relations with friends but other societal relations.
Rainbow Dash and Gilda vs. Fluttershy: The Influence of Sympathy
Surprisingly enough, one of the best portrayals of the lesson of “Lesson Zero” in the show probably comes from the season 1 episode “Gilda the Brush Off.”
In the episode, Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash begin to bond over a love of pranking. After pranking several characters, Rainbow Dash spots Fluttershy as a potential target. Pinkie Pie, however, quickly jumps in and states that Fluttershy is off-limits due to her sensitivity, meaning that even the most harmless of pranks would hurt her feelings. Instead of going through with pranking, Rainbow Dash agrees with Fluttershy and decides to not prank her.
Now the reason I bring this up as one of the best example of the lesson of “Lesson Zero” is due to the subject matter that is being discussed; jokes. Quite often, when someone expresses a concern about jokes, they get met with dismissal and mocked as being “over-sensitive” or “thin-skinned”; their emotions are being used as a reason to ignore what may in fact be valid concerns. Rainbow Dash’s decision to not prank Fluttershy, however, is a complete rejection of this common occurrence. Instead of getting upset or angry (beyond a raspberry to signify some annoyance) and mocking Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash respects her sensitivities and decides to adjust her own actions to accommodate them (in this case by finding another target).
We can probably imagine Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie’s thought process for this scene to work something like this. First, they recognize that Fluttershy has her own sensitivities and emotions (theory of mind); they imagine a scenario in which they pranked Fluttershy and, by understanding her sensitivity, imagine the suffering she would go under; they are able to empathize with these feelings; understanding how much they could hurt her, they sympathize with her and wish to avoid hurting her all together. Therefore, they decide to not prank her.
Want to take a guess whom in that episode seemed to not have such a developed sense of sympathy?
Throughout the episode, Gilda takes a rather self-centered attitude. Granted, she did do the chant for Rainbow Dash, and as many other reviewers have argued she may indeed have considered Rainbow Dash a friend. Her treatment of others, however, suggests that she does not make much effort to empathize with others, and instead focuses primarily on her own emotions and needs. This does provide an interesting explanation for her outburst towards Pinkie Pie at the end. Not able to recognize the needs of others, Gilda may have defaulted to assuming others had the same mindset as her. Her assumption then that Pinkie Pie set all the pranks in an attempt to humiliate or ruin her might give us insight into how Gilda thinks. Of course this is all just speculation, so no need to take it too far.
Out of all the lessons of the series, the one expressed in “Lesson Zero” is by far my favorite. I consider its message of respecting your friends concerns, even if you personally don’t feel the same way, to be an important message about the role of sympathy and empathy in maintaining healthy relationships. It also emphasizes the importance of having a well-developed theory of mind and recognizing that other people have desires, needs, knowledge, etc. that are different from one’s own. Even if doing all this is quite difficult, and there is quite the tendency to simply dismiss other concerns when in conflict with our own, I do believe that we are capable of meeting the challenge.
*In the past, “sympathy” was used as a catch-all term that defined a concept that combined modern day concepts of sympathy and empathy into one framework. Philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith in particular are well known for this.
For more information on these topics, please feel free read the following: