Sympathy vs. Empathy

I have often marvelled at the subtle difference between the words “sympathy” and “empathy” and their erroneous interchangeable usage in modern speech. Since I’ve been laid up with the flu for the past several days, my husband has been taking care of me by making sure I drink ungodly amounts of fluids, eat meals on a regular schedule, and rest, rest, and rest some more. During all of this “resting”, I have been ruminating on these two words.

According to my faithful 1959 Webster’s Dictionary, sympathy is: “An affinity, association, or relationship between things so that whatever affects one similarly affects the other or others; hence, a reaction or response brought about by such relationship.” Empathy is not listed. Evidently, in 1959, there was no clear distinction between the two words.

Further scrutiny of “empathy” yielded the following results: “empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, modeled on “sympathy.” The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica: Academic Edition) Interesting.

As I said in a previous post, I love to participate in community theatre. The best kind of acting is when the actor truly loses himself in the part he is playing–when he empathizes with the character because of past circumstances. To me, this definition of empathy is very applicable because I understand exactly what it means to “become” someone else for the stage. To you, this may not be an adequate representation of the word.

To be truly empathetic, an individual has to have experienced the loss, walked through the valley, spent the effort, or needed the cure just as much as the person with whom he is empathizing. Any other response is sympathy. Please make no assumption that I am claiming sympathy to be less than adequate for most situations, but I do believe that in some cases, the empathetic affirmation of “I’ve been there, I know what you are feeling.” makes a huge difference.

I cannot empathize with many trials that people face, but I can offer sympathy in the midst of the storm. I cannot give counsel to people that are walking through certain hardships, but I can sympathize and pray with them for resolution. I cannot truly understand how things can happen, but I can sympathetically lend my shoulder to friends in despair.

I can empathize with those who are facing the loss of a loved one. I can empathize with you who are facing the Giant of Cancer. I can tell you that I understand the fear of the doctor’s diagnosis and the outcome of his verdict. I do understand what it means to watch sickness ravage the body of a loved one. I know the pain of goodbye. I have experienced the bittersweet knowledge that my loved one is with my King. I have felt the overwhelming comfort of whispered empathy from those who have survived.

In this volitile age in which we live, we need more support. We need more people who “have been there” to stand up and say so. We need people willing to revisit the pain of the past to comfort another’s present. I need to be more sensitive to those around me. I need to offer empathy when I can and sympathy when all I can do is pray.

Unfortunately, my husband can now be empathetic to my flu…

Reader Response: Sympathy and Empathy, what say you?


One thought on “Sympathy vs. Empathy

  1. At least he will have a very sympathetic and empathetic caregiver!

    In my profession we are all about empathy, though not the exact kind you described. It is impossible for one to be truly empathetic of their peer with autism, yet we try to educate them so that they can imagine what that life would be like. And we hope that peers have empathy rather than confusion, because even children ridicule that which they cannot understand. On the other side of this we try our best to teach empathy to children who have no theory of mind, that is, they CANNOT imagine themselves to be in another person’s shoes. They have no concept of being someone else, or feeling what they feel. They don’t understand that something they do or say may cause someone pain. It is a very difficult thing to teach.

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