Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Archive for January 12th, 2022

Sympathy and Empathy — Which Is Better?

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A few days ago, I was chatting with a male friend. When I told him I sympathized with something he’d said, he did the online equivalent of looking at me as if I suddenly had two heads. To him, “sympathy” means only its first definition, that of feeling pity for someone. It doesn’t mean the second, far less well-used definition of understanding what people go through as a commonality. (Such as, “The sisters shared a special sympathy for one another.”)

The second definition is far closer to that of empathy than not.

Empathy is defined, more or less, as the understanding and ability to share someone else’s feelings. No pity could ever be involved with empathy, as the word understanding is key.

So, say, you have two sisters. They have typical growing pains, don’t always agree with each other, have difficulties…but because they both were raised by the same people (or the same sorts of people, anyway), they can be both sympathetic and empathetic.

Clear as mud, right?

So, let’s try this again. I, personally, do not think sympathy should always have to evoke pity.

If I sympathize with someone, it’s because I’m human and share a commonality with the person hurting. Maybe I’ve been hurt the same way. Maybe not. But if I can put myself in this other person’s shoes, at least for a bit, perhaps I can help them in some small way to realize that they’re not alone.

Empathy, and being empathetic, also is quite important, whether I use sympathy’s first definition or its second.

Why?

Well, in some cases I have no idea why people do what they do. Maybe they’ve done something so foolish, so wrong, so stupid, or so terrible that they have had awful consequences in their life (such as going to prison) because of their own behavior and actions. I can’t feel sympathy because there’s no commonality of shared experiences there.

But I can feel empathy, because I’m a human being and so are they. And I’d like to think that none of us — none — are a complete waste of space and effort.

And it’s not just me.

Empathy is probably the reason Sister Helen Prejean continues her work to abolish the death penalty. (Though I think she also sympathizes with the prisoners she’s met in a “there, but for the grace of God go I” sense.) Empathy is probably what late Archbishop Desmond Tutu felt that kept him working hard to abolish apartheid in South Africa. Empathy is probably why most people who work at nonprofits try so hard to do good things with their lives (as they surely aren’t getting much in the way of remuneration most of the time).

I think most people understand the importance of empathy. (At least, I’d like to hope so.) But that second meaning of sympathy is just as important, and I wish was discussed far more often than the first meaning (of condolences and pity).

So, which is better?

Both are good. Both are meaningful.

My personal belief, however, is that empathy is almost certainly closer to the Higher Power than sympathy. Empathy leads closer to other people, as well as closer to the Higher Power.

Still, that second meaning for sympathy should not be discounted.

The hope here, from me, is that you’ll think about these two words — sympathy and empathy — and how they’re at work in your life (as well as your writing and/or other creative pursuits). They certainly are worth more than a bit of study.

What do you think? Are you more on Team Sympathy? Or on Team Empathy? (Or is it silly to assign teams to them at all?) Tell me about it in the comments!

Written by Barb Caffrey

January 12, 2022 at 4:45 pm