When a dear buddy lost his brother in a car accident while we were in college, I came home for the funeral to be with him and give him someone to talk. One of the things that brought him comfort was told to him by the rabbi, that if all the people in the world threw their troubles into a big pile and get to pick anyone’s trouble to take out, they would choose their own.
We all have our problems and, much as we care about others and would like to be there for them, help them if we can, we no more want their problems than they want ours. We are not them. They are not us. So be it. So how did sympathy become something only bad people gave?
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.
What’s the difference, you ask, aside from empathy being the hip new word and sympathy being the old tired word?
“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.
While it mostly comes off as yet another fadish bit of semantic nonsense, the voices of correctness take this very seriously. It reflects not just the word you use (have all the Hallmark cards replaced “sympathy” with “empathy”?), but the depth of your caring about others more than yourself. If you’re sympathetic, then it’s all about you. If you’re empathetic, then it’s all about them. Believers will die on this hill, much like they believe that using the wrong pronouns is the equivalent of physical castration even if there’s no blood.
The problem, of course, is that no one really feels what another is feeling because no matter how hard they try, how much they want to, they’ve had different life experiences that render them an individual. They may know the feeling of being the victim of “injustice,” but the best they can do is filter it through their own life experience.
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.
Does this make you the devil because you aren’t, and can’t be, them?
“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.”
One can be a compassionate person, care about others and still not pretend that they can immerse themselves in other people’s world of problems. And that doesn’t make them the devil, but a decent human being. If you can’t appreciate this, you have my sympathy, and that’s the best you’re going to get.