Stepping into the Shoes or Feeling Sorry from Far?

Understanding Empathy and Sympathy as Distinct Poles Connecting the World

In the movie ‘Wonder’ directed by Stephen Chbosky, August Pullman (Auggie) receives the Henry Ward Beecher Medal for his strength and courage in the year-end graduation ceremony. As he marches towards the stage to face the applauding crowd, he says -

“Maybe the truth is, I’m really not so ordinary. Maybe if we knew what other people were thinking we’d know that no one’s ordinary…It’s like that last precept Mr Browne gave us -

Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle. And if you really wanna see what people are, all you have to do… is look.”

August Pullman (Auggie) from the movie Wonder (2017)

What did it take for Auggie to remember these words from his teacher? Some courage and a better understanding of the world.

However, there is more that reflects in these words — empathy.

Empathy — Understanding it Better

Roman Krznaric, a public philosopher, defines empathy as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions”.

Empathy is having the thought ‘we have all been there’ or ‘we may as well be there someday.’ It is about feeling someone else’s problem like one’s own and building a kinder world around us.

However, a question that comes to mind is whether one has to undergo the same problem to understand and show empathy towards someone else.

Maybe not.

Pride Parade, a powerful mark of pride and belongingness in human history for the LGBTQIA+ community, is a beautiful example of support, strength, and empathy. The word ‘pride’ signifies pride in oneself for who one is. The world’s first Pride Parade took place in June 1970 in New York City, and since then, it has spread as a movement in places across the globe. The first Pride Parade in India was held in Kolkata in the year 1999. Over the years, several cities across the country have been holding their parades.

These Parades have grown to become a space for people beyond the LGBTQIA+ community as they come together to celebrate uniqueness, individuality, and co-existence. However, when people who do not belong to the community come along to celebrate Pride, they have compassionate empathy in their hearts for all the struggle the community has endured.

Although there is more to empathy. What if someone knows the problem, expresses concern but does not take a step forward to help solve it someway?

Sympathy — the Other Side of Kindness

Sympathy and empathy are a measure of kindness towards fellow beings; however, the beginning and end differ. While empathy would mean living a problem someway by stepping into the shoes of the sufferer, sympathy would mean knowing that someone is suffering and being concerned about it.

When empathy would lead to shared action, sympathy may just end the problem in mind without sharing the emotions or the perspective. Thus, empathy will always involve emotional connection while the same may not apply to sympathy, where the only point of connection between two individuals would be a concern.

However, it is essential to understand that empathy and sympathy both arise out of concern and a feeling of kindness. The difference lies in the extra mile one chooses to go to understand someone else’s dilemmas. Some people have the emotional bandwidth and the mental capacity to help a person get through a difficult time by feeling their difficulty in their own life and connecting emotionally. They can be more empathetic than others at times. However, the ones who cannot always do so are not necessarily unkind to the world. They engage with the problems of others at a slower pace and may resort to sympathy sometimes.

Empathy or Sympathy — Which one to Choose?

Human-to-human connections stand firm with the support of vulnerability and emotions. They are two strong pillars that take time to be built. These connections help understand fellow beings and design a new perspective to look at the world. To build these connections, empathy is a must. Some people choose empathy over sympathy as a gift to give to the world, as sympathy is often equated with pitying. A world full of pity will never lead to change but a willingness to change the world with kindness can surely help.

We learn as we grow and evolve with time. Practising empathy is a way towards emotional and mental growth to gain perspective, understanding, and a better outlook towards the world and its problems. But it can be overwhelming at the same time. Thus transitioning from sympathy to empathy can be a long road for some. One can not relate to every problem in the world at the same time. Every person is different, so are their lives and experiences. However, knowing that hundreds of us are trying to relate to each other’s lives every day can help us take a step forward and be there for someone in need.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” — Nelson Mandela.

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This article was edited by Atotmyr.

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Crafting the way towards Mental Health