Empathy and sympathy are not the same thing.
Sympathy is, “I feel bad for you.”
Empathy is, “I feel what you’re feeling.”
This brief cartoon does an excellent job of illustrating the difference between these two ideas. In a previous post, I described my reaction to seeing my neighbor’s flooded basement during Hurricane Sandy. Initially, my reaction was one of sympathy. I truly felt for him having so much water in his house. Moments later, my sympathy turned to empathy, my house was filled with water also. Although these internal responses on my part happened seemingly in the span of about 15 minutes, as I’ve reflected upon them, they reveal to me something about the nature of human empathy.
We can’t experience everything. One would hope that in order to develop empathy for our neighbors, we should not need to encounter everything that they have gone through. I’m thinking about the congressman ( it’s usually a man) who is against marriage equality until the day his son comes home from college and tells him that he is gay. The congressman has a change of heart and suddenly is a champion for the LGBT community. The same narrative plays itself out on a host of other issues. Gun violence. Poverty. Racial Justice. For many people, it takes an issue “hitting home” before they discover the soft place in their heart that guides their actions. I’m all for “Road to Damascus” moments, but must you have direct experience of someone’s struggles before you’re willing to lend a hand?
Several articles discuss the limits of empathy. Just because we can put ourselves in the shoes of another person doesn’t necessarily mean we will be motivated to do anything about the challenges they face. If, while driving my car, I feel for a person alongside the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel who looks down on his luck, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to pull over and offer to help. Although there is research about the impact of empathy on our actions, it’s difficult to argue that it is one of those essential ingredients that motivates us to take positive actions towards one another. We may not always act on our feelings of empathy, but when we do act with kindness or generosity towards others, the impulse to do so likely began with a sense of empathy.
So this leads me to my question. Over the past year and a half we’ve all seen water in our neighbors’ basements, and in our own. Given that every single human being on the planet, to a greater or lesser degree, has somehow coped with COVID-19, it stands to reason that there would be a surfeit of empathy in the world today. Has this made us more empathetic? Has it made us nicer, more kind towards one another?
What do you think? Are we more kind? Are we nicer?