Sympathy Versus Empathy

A well-intentioned statement in a conversation recently, reminded me of many others and the way we embrace the attitudes of sympathy or empathy and the subsequent out-working of those attitudes. I have been reading definitions of these two words from different dictionaries and psychologists and I have some musings of my own.

We often think that we know what would be best for someone or presume what their preferences would be, but our view is often born out of what we would prefer or consider best. My preferences and ‘best’ will not always, or hardly ever, be the same as another in similar circumstances. The fact that I was well-intentioned is almost irrelevant.

I think that it is perhaps better if sympathy is a step along the path to empathy out of which appropriate attitude and action can stem.

Sympathy is recognising that I agree with you about how you feel or view something, but it is my feeling or view that I experience and respond to. We need sympathy in order to consider how something would affect us, whether positively or negatively, and to then think about how we might react or take part in something.

Empathy is the ‘art’ or perhaps discipline of attempting to walk in someone else’s shoes. It implies to me an intentional effort of mind and soul to consider what someone else’s experience might be. I can do this through conversation and question of the other; through consideration of anything I already know of the other’s history and present; through observing the other’s outward expression of their experience – whether positive or negative, verbal or physical…

Sympathy alone would lend me to want to change another’s circumstances or person to suit me, make me feel better, achieve my goals, remove all that is a bother to me, include all that would make my life easier…A good beginning but a potentially disabling, judgemental, intrusive and ultimately self-seeking end. Not any of the things I associate with love, compassion or community. Empathy, on the other hand, and if an extension of the sympathy I first experience, would lend me to consider what would be in the best interests of the other. I might ask what their experience actually is, what their goals and frustrations are, what are their passions and hurts…the list could go on. I might then be able to feel and say, “I think I can see how you feel or why you would want that.”

Our Designer said that love is not self-seeking and that loving community involves each having the same love, and looking out for the interests of others as well as ourselves.

I’m reminded of a few quotes that have struck me in relation to empathy, community, met needs and contribution. The first from Edith Cavell, a World War I nurse on the day before her German execution – on patriotism (which I saw as a perceived ‘good intention’)

…standing as I do before God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.

The second is Kurt Fearnley – paralympian, Young Australian of the Year, OAM and much more

Without empathy and support from within my community I would have never found my way to the life I get to live now; a life that hinged on successful financial rationalisation, where a community found that the cost to support me was an investment into the lives of all of those who I have been able to interact with.

And my friend, Tom, posed the question this past weekend of what my biggest need is today following with

(Our Designer) doesn’t just pick you up, dust you off and send you on your way.

(He) picks us up and transforms us.

That’s what I want, transformation. That’s what I want for you too. Transformation is what I want for our communities.

I can suffer you sit by me while I live life. Or I can work with you, and you with me, so that we both live each of our lives with fulfilment, participation, community – but as interdependant individuals, not dominant/compliant carbon copies

2 thoughts on “Sympathy Versus Empathy

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