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Empathy vs. Sympathy

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I was arguing with a friend recently about the difference between empathy and sympathy.  So many times we have an intuitive knowing of definitions of words but couldn’t say what they literally mean.  The majority of the time we are right.  My argument was that empathy was more noble than sympathy.  Empathy in my mind is “imagining yourself into someone’s position” so you are feeling what another person might be going through in a very real way.  You are in essence walking in his shoes.  Sympathy, although rooted in compassion, could be reduced to sorrow for a person’s situation or momentary attention on it.  In it lies care and suffering for another man’s plight, but it seems more detached somehow.  I imagine a man walking up to a window and seeing an unfortunate scene on the other side of the glass where he is witnessing pain and he feels sorry for the situation and may want to help, but he is still behind the glass looking in.  Were he to empathize, he would be on the other side of the glass in the midst of the suffering, feeling the pain and sharing in the suffering in a very real way.  Where would we be without empathy? It is the core of our One-ness.  Once one is in an empathetic state it is virtually impossible to move against that person.  As I was telling my friend, to have a strong internal sense of empathy brings with it a great responsibility which can sometimes feel like a burden.  Sympathy to me is “I am so sorry to hear that, I hope it works out for you.” perhaps with an offer of help.  Empathy is to remove the barrier of separation and feel the pain as intensely as if it was your own and to say with words and deeds, “We are in this together.” 

Being an empath is to acknowledge the connectedness  of the web in which we are living, the ripple of effect of our negative and positive actions, and ultimately provokes right action in response.  It requires a receptivity that makes one so open to the plights of others that it can be tiring, but empathy is a necessary ingredient to One-ness nonetheless.  After all, the day that we are in the trenches faced with suffering or a difficult conclusion, wouldn’t we want our other comrades coming down to join us and lighten our burden?  This statement says it well:

Empathy develops into an unspoken understanding and mutual decision making that is unquestioned, and forms the basis of tribal community.

Why could empathy be a burden when it is such a necessary quality of a harmonic existence?  Because in a state of empathy one is instantly responsible.  To act or not act after truly sitting in another’s shoes is the whole point of sitting in empathy in the first place.  How would we want someone to act under such circumstances?  What would we want done for us?  The “burden” of reading about great pain and suffering on the front page of the newspaper and truly feeling pain and sadness in your gut, instantly moves you to an option to do something about it or not, even if in a small way.  It is no different than walking down a street and watching someone getting mugged.  If we feel alarm and fear for the person getting attacked in our being, how could we possibly keep walking?  To put ourselves in the shoes of someone else and dissolve the illusion of separateness requires decision and action. 

Sympathy can of course be a comfort to others in a time of need, but it seems to slightly deny our unity.  When one is at a crossroads faced with a decision, to move or not to move, to act or not to act – empathy is an antidote and tool to bust throught the confusion.  It is really quite simple: feel the situation, pain and potentialities of another and then act accordingly.  My father matter-of-factly said to me many years ago, “You know, I get a lot of pleasure and gratification out of doing the right thing in circumstances.”  It is men like my father who help to alleviate chaos in the world.  He has been a great example and I have gathered the rewards from his wisdom.  If we are ever at a loss for which action to take, how to help or how to behave, the shortest route to the answer is absolute empathy.  It is the only way to be.  Almost without fail, the hardest most uncomfortable thing to do is also the right one.  As we place ourselves in another’s shoes and do right by them, we will find that when it counts, someone will do right by us.  Although it may not seem so at the time, empathy and subsequent right action will not go unnoticed.  They are seeds planted to be harvested at a later time.  Consider empathy an investment in your spiritual escrow. There will be someday we will need it in return.


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