Have Some Sympathy

I’m beginning to feel sorry for sympathy. It was once such an honorable impulse. Humble, sincere, caring. Sympathy was meant for people who suffered or had less. In its most modest form, a sympathy card sent to people in grieving.

But sympathy has gotten a bad rap. Now considered the noblesse oblige of emotions, it’s disdained as a facile “poor you” of a sentiment, the equivalent of pity. Sympathy, in short, is to be avoided — something you are warned not to give and would be loath to receive.

Instead, we are to upgrade to its superior, empathy. Schools and parenting guides instruct children in how to cultivate empathy, as do workplace culture and wellness programs. You could fill entire bookshelves with guides to finding, embracing and sharing empathy. Few books or lesson plans extol sympathy’s virtues.

“Sympathy focuses on offering support from a distance,” a therapist explains on LinkedIn, whereas empathy “goes beyond sympathy by actively immersing oneself in another person’s emotions and attempting to comprehend their point of view.”

And from Proceedings, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute: “Sympathy has to do with sharing emotions but is still focused on the individual who is sympathizing, rather than truly seeking to understand another’s perspective.” Spare us your sympathy, in other words.

But what did sympathy do to deserve this treatment? And what makes empathy so superior?

Etymologically speaking, sympathy was here first. In use since the 16th century, when the Greek syn- (with) combined with pathos (experience, misfortune, emotion, condition) to mean “having common feelings,” sympathy preceded empathy by a good four centuries. Empathy (the “em” means “into”) barged in from the German in the 20th century and gained popularity through its usage in fields like philosophy, aesthetics and psychology. According to my benighted 1989 edition of Webster’s Unabridged, empathy was the more self-centered emotion, “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.”

But in more updated lexicons, it’s as if the two words had reversed. Sympathy now implies a hierarchy whereas empathy is the more egalitarian sentiment. Empathy, per Dictionary.com, is “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the emotions, thoughts or attitudes of another” while sympathy stands at a haughty, “you poor dear” remove: “the act or state of feeling sorrow or compassion for another.”

No wonder, one educator said to me that he was told in a recent diversity, equity and inclusion training program that “sympathy counts for nothing.” Sympathy, the session’s leader explained to school staff, was seeing someone in a hole and saying, “Too bad you’re in a hole,” whereas empathy meant getting in the hole with them.

Perhaps you have heard about this hole. Brené Brown, the best-selling author, may be the one who popularized the hole metaphor, which makes a moral distinction between sympathy and empathy. “Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling,” she says in a YouTube video.

According to this vision, empathy is about sharing someone else’s perspective, not offering your own.

Still, it’s hard to square the new emphasis on empathy — you must feel what others feel — with another element of the current discourse. According to what’s known as “standpoint theory,” your view necessarily depends on your own experience: You can’t possibly know what others feel.

In his new book, “The Identity Trap,” Yascha Mounk, a professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins, defends a modest version of this theory, writing, “It really is easy for the comparatively privileged to remain blind to the challenges faced by those who are less fortunate.” But in its more extreme interpretations, Mounk cautions, it “wrongly claims that people from different groups are incapable of empathizing with each other’s experiences of injustice — and that it would be better for them to stop trying.”

In short, no matter how much an empath you may be, unless you have actually been in someone’s place, with all its experiences and limitations, you cannot understand where that person is coming from. The object of your empathy may find it presumptuous of you to think that you “get it.”

“Empathy is asking too much,” Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at University of Toronto and the author of “Against Empathy,” told me. In an article in The Boston Review, Bloom asks us to imagine what empathy demands should a friend’s child drown. “A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain,” he writes. “In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.”

Bloom argues for a more rational, modulated, compassionate response. Something that sounds a little more like our old friend sympathy.

So why not on occasion hold out a hand to sympathy instead? Return to the idea that charitable feeling from afar isn’t inherently suspect and that in some situations, the best you can do is “merely” sympathize. That when someone blubbers uncontrollably next to you, you may not need to blubber too, and the person may not want you to anyway. You could instead say, “I’m truly sorry” or “That’s so unfair.”

It’s perfectly fine and perhaps better than fine to admit, “I cannot possibly know what it’s like to have a miscarriage/fight in a war/get cancer.” Why not say, as Leslie Jamison suggests in her book “The Empathy Exams,” “I couldn’t even imagine!”

No need to be sorry about offering your sympathies.

Source images by Richard Drury and Sui Zhou/Getty Images.

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