It is Election Season and the pundits are out in force trying to out-erudite each other. Here come all the arcane words like ‘hegemony’, ‘demagogue’, ‘tatterdemalion’ (okay, I lied about the last one but I love it so much). The most commonly used and misused word in this cascade of verbiage is ‘empathy’. People understand that empathy is something good, but they don’t use the proper context for a very complex concept.
For most people, empathy is a fancier way to say compassion. An empathic (or the more correct ‘empathetic’) person in their eyes is one who is moved by the suffering of others and therefore acts on their behalf. They could use the word ‘compassionate’ or ‘sympathetic’, but the word ‘empathy’ has a gravitas, a sense of being a higher order of feeling. And it is just that, but not within the confines of the pundits’ usage.
The sense of sharing someone’s sorrow is sympathy. Sympathy is the innate understanding of the tribulations of another through self-experience. You can be sympathetic to a heart stricken lover because you have had a heartbreak yourself. You can understand the pain of a broken arm because you once broke your ankle. Sympathy is selfish and self-focused; the recognition of the responses of another only through what you have felt.
Compassion is a more generalized and weaker term, the description of an emotion. You feel sorry for suffering individuals because you can sense that they are suffering. It is the sorry state they are in that moves you and not an understanding of the cause or effect of that state. Compassion, though a kindly feeling at base, can border on pity and even condescension.
Empathy is far more difficult to attain. It allows you to understand a state of being without having experienced it yourself. In empathy, you don’t need to have broken your arm or have even felt the same level of pain to recognize that the pain is enormous and requires treatment. You don’t need to have gone hungry yourself to recognize that poverty and its resultant starvation are woeful conditions.
Sympathy is easy and common although sadly not universal. Most people are likely to feel bad for someone in pain having experienced pain themselves. There are some who will not of course. But even the feeling of anger at a person who is complaining of suffering is a form of sympathy. You were strong enough to survive. Why aren’t they? You have overlaid your response to a known situation onto a stranger, even if your reaction is not a kindly one.
Empathy is difficult and rare. It requires the abstraction of a state to the point where you can understand not only the condition but the responses of the people involved. Again there is no implication of compassion in the term. What you do with your understanding is strictly up to you.
Where the punditry most falls apart is in the ascription of empathy to a candidate or another figure in the public world. A candidate may be said to be too removed from daily lives of constituents, so that person cannot have empathy towards them. In fact, that person could only have ‘empathy’.
Sympathy is impossible without the shared experience. But an intelligent and thoughtful statesperson might know enough about the human condition to understand that issues of daily life for a person of a different status. FDR did just that in attempting to reverse the Great Depression. He was never on a breadline in his life, but his understanding of society allowed him to realize that the want of food was a dreadful thing. In his case, his empathy moved him to compassion and he implemented a number of New Deal initiatives.
Literature is rife with episodes where a character has to live the life of those in need to understand and act on their behalf. Ben Hur must experience slavery in order to rise up and lead the slaves to the emancipation of Christianity. Scrooge has to witness the biting poverty of most of England and recognize his own aloneness in order to save Tiny Tim. Joel McCrea as Sullivan in Preston Sturges’ classic movie “Sullivan’s Travels” must pretend to be out of work and destitute in order to realize what the films his audience wants to see. In each case, the character’s sympathy is released by sharing the downtrodden state of his beneficiaries.
As in life, it is rarer to find the character who acts from reasoned understanding without needing to suffer the actual scars. John Galt, for all the flaws of the book Atlas Shrugged, is an empathetic character (perhaps the strong desire of Ayn Rand to associate her character with Jesus, the original empath). With far less self-conscious depth, both The Scarlet Pimpernel and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities are empathetic. Why are you doing this? It is the right thing to do. “It is far, far better thing…”