Friday, February 22, 2008

Sympathy and Empathy

So, today, for the umpteenth time, I explained the difference between sympathy and empathy to my ESL students. (Aside: I remember the first time I heard the word "umpteenth." Dan Rather said it during coverage of the first Gulf War. I don't remember any more about the context, but I went and looked up "umpteenth" in the dictionary. I have a problematic soft spot for Dan Rather because he gave my Dad topographical maps that helped him backpack out of Baghdad to Jordan).

I think the word "sympathetic" has a bad reputation. As in:

We tend to focus on the concept of "pity" (pathos, etc) relative to sympathy, but I think sympathy can be about the capacity to imagine someone's experience while at the same time recongizing that you cannot possibly accurately imagine someone's experience--especially their suffering. It's the combination of the willingness to imagine and the recognition of the impossibility of imagining that is important. When my Dad's dad passed away nearly 10 years ago (I never new my grandfather, all I know is that he ate wheat germ and was once hit in the head with a wrecking ball--mythology) I didn't know what else to write except something along the lines of "Dad, I have no idea how you are feeling, but if you want to talk, let's talk."

When I explain sympathy to my students, I talk about it in terms of identification. Sympathy is when you can imagine or identify with someone's experience, even if you've never had a similar experience. Somehow, there is an affinity--even if it's only imagined. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (if some kind person with access to the OED wants to send me the entries for sympathy and empathy, great), sympathy is "almost a magical notion at first; e.g. in ref. to medicines that heal wounds when applied to a cloth stained with blood from the wound." Sympathy as a way to connect to someone else, even though true connection is impossible.

Empathy is a much more recent term, coined (again, I'm citing the Online Etymology Dictionary) in 1858 by Rudolf Lotze. Empathy is initially about identifying with art, not with people. (The art object as a mirror of self, bla bla). When we talk about empathy relative to another person, it's still largely an intellectual concept: empathy is a kind of intellectual vicarious experience of the feelings of someone else. At least that's how I explain it to my super smart advanced ESL students.

So, I think of empathy as being intellectual, and sympathy as being imaginative. Yes, I know, it's a false dichotomy, but still. It's truly impossible to understand someone else's experience. You can't really know what another person is experiencing any more than you can know what a parrot is experiencing. What you have is your ability to imagine someone's experience based on your shared interactions. This is how Lester and I interact: we have our own knowledge of ourselves, and our own knowledge of our shared interactions.

No comments: