When I was in high school, a friend telephoned to tell me a boy we knew had been killed in a car accident. He was 17. I remember putting down the receiver unsure of how to feel. It seemed surreal. I had never experienced the death of someone I had known so well. I remember feeling sadness for his sister, his parents and for him, but otherwise I felt lost, almost empty.
For a long time I have been steadfast in my belief that empathy meant one person had a similar experience with another allowing each to better understand what the other was going through, emotionally. Today there is no doubt I would know exactly how to feel if that same friend called to tell me our friend had died. I am aware of the pain that comes from my knowledge of it. That, to me, is empathy. Sympathy, on the other hand, meant that a person had concern for, cared about, and had emotions about what another was going through even though the person feeling sympathetic had not have experienced a similar event.
Over the last few years when I hear or read of someone using the word empathy instead of what I think is the more appropriate word, sympathy, I would say to myself, “Why isn’t the word sympathy good enough?” So, I decided to do some research. What I discovered about these two words, especially empathy, was surprising.
The word empathy is relatively new to the English language. It was introduced in 1909 by the British psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener who translated the German word Einfühlung into our English word empathy. The word at its inception gave people a way to describe the experience felt while viewing visual arts; it described a kind of tapping into the emotional aspect of that viewing. From there its meaning continued to take on a larger role in explaining people’s emotional lives and connections we have to each other.
In my research, the surprise I encountered was there is not a wholly agreed upon definition of empathy. It varies from the meaning of sympathy being flip-flopped with the meaning of empathy to using one’s imagination and everything in between. After much reading I must confess that my definition may be outdated. Even though my meaning of empathy needs some tweaking in order to be in sync with the zeitgeist of our times where empathy involves using the imagination, I still believe my definition is the better one because merely imagining yourself viewing an experience from another’s viewpoint has its limits; those limits are defined by the experiences we have had. I also believe sympathy has a role to play as well, a larger one than it now plays.
Though I do agree that the definition for empathy of imagining oneself in someone's shoes is not a completely wrong idea, the 18th century philosopher and political writer Adam Smith’s words in his work The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), here, caused me to rethink the contemporary meaning of empathy. Though he wasn’t talking about the word “empathy” –because it wasn’t yet used—he did describe humans projecting “our feeling into other forms in order to experience ourselves.” He wasn’t talking about seeing an experience from another person's point of view either. Instead he was explaining how we learn about ourselves through someone's experiences. That sparked a flicker inside my mind about empathy. I decided to take his idea and change it to offer what I think is a better definition for empathy. (Hey, with all the different definitions floating around I decided I can come up with one of my own.) Here is what I think: when empathizing, people are projecting their own emotions onto a person therefore they are not seeing it from the other person’s point of view but from their own. It is, at least to me, impossible to understand completely what another person is feeling. Humans do in fact project emotions onto lots of things, not just people. Take a look at advertisements about abused animals, or the fact that some of us hate to kill bugs as we watch them swirl around in the toilet after flushing. Others feel sadness if a plant dies especially when weeding out the little seedlings to make room for a healthier plant. Children worry about stuffed animals being left alone probably because they don’t like to be alone themselves. We can’t feel what those life forms or objects feel--yes I know objects don't feel--but we do project what we might feel if we were in their position. That I believe is a much better definition for today’s use of the word “empathy”.
Over time, empathy has become the favored term over sympathy. Sympathy was used to describe our moral compass; if a person thought a behavior of another was bad then it was considered morally wrong. Empathy explained the emotions felt by those same behaviors. Eventually more people than not believed this word had the meaning I am most familiar with, one of knowing what an experience feels like because of having had a similar experience. Then came the push to persuade people that the word is about imagining being in the skin of someone else and seeing it from their point of view rather than from your own.
People advocating for social change began using this new imaginative idea extending from empathy's new definition. They were hoping to improve the lives of those in poverty, improve working conditions, and help those who were ill or perhaps ostracized from the larger social networks. By talking about empathy, attempts were made to open people’s eyes to the fact that though that person doesn’t talk like you, look like you, or act like you, they are still a person with feelings and desires just like you. The idea is if people can create more of a “shared” connection to others a change in their behaviors would cause them to take action to better those people’s lives.
Our educational institutions took up the challenge of changing behaviors to better our world through empathy as well. Reading novels is supposed to create a connection with the characters and young readers. It does show readers that people have endured great sadness during wars, plagues or of governments mistreating their people. It does allow them to see a place in the world that might be completely different than the one they reside. But, it is clear to me that empathy is a process. To truly understand another person's hardship or even joy, you must live it yourself or at least experience something similar. I can tell you someone is probably scared traveling across a border to get into America illegally, but I can only guess what fear they are feeling having not experienced anything similar in my life. Seeing it from their point of view then is impossible. When I was a stage I breast cancer patient, I could imagine how I would feel if I became stage IV, but none of that prepared me for when I did become stage IV. It was much harder than what I thought it might be. I had projected my feelings onto each person who seemed worse off than I while sitting in the waiting room eventually to be seen by my oncologist. I still had hope at that time so my inexperience clouded my thoughts of their reality.
Currently my daughter and I are reading the Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez which is about two children whose parents send them to America to escape Cuba at the beginning of Fidel Castro’s regime in 1961. As I was reading aloud one afternoon, she saw me become emotional when the parents told their children they must go to another country for a while, alone. While I was tearing up and my words were breaking, she looked at me. I could tell she could not feel the same emotion I was feeling for these characters. She could not feel the pain of the parents having to send their children away nor feel how afraid those children felt being sent away. How could she? She has never experienced anything remotely close to what these people were experiencing. Though I cannot possibly get into the skin of those parents in the story, I do have children and have been afraid of losing them in a crowd or in some horrible accident. Was I feeling empathy or maybe a mix of sympathy and empathy for the characters? Was my daughter feeling sympathy with no life experience to feel anything else? And, does it matter what feelings we were having as long as both of us knew that people should be treated respectfully; that we should do what we are able in order to help people when we can. Not just on the big issues such as refugees but on the day to day contact humans have with one another.
Unfortunately, I think an unintended consequence has occurred due to the current political climate in regards to empathy. It may in fact be pitting people against each other. Choosing sides and wanting to produce change through anger seems wrong. I agree with Paul Bloom here and Jonas Goldberg here that we can get so caught up in the empathy for one person that we can forget to be empathetic toward another. Think about this for a moment: if insurance pays for a treatment for one person, it may mean another receives no treatment at all because money is finite. If I say all refugees should not have an open door to come into America then I am labeled as evil instead of seen as caring about American citizens. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about refugees, it just means I am ALSO concerned for a different group of people, the group of people in my country. If we include young women with stage IV in a particular group because their needs are different than someone who is 50 or older than we are placing more importance on those particular individuals. When people take or give something for themselves or others, someone else loses that something. I think many people forget that. Our lives each have a price tag. If we insist that money be spent on one individual or one particular group of people then someone will suffer. I don’t like it, but it is reality. The choosing of who gets what is so difficult.
Sympathy may be the only thing we ALL can feel. Why can’t that be enough? Does it make us feel better about ourselves if we pretend to know how another feels in any given experience? Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t; does it even matter? Sympathy doesn’t mean we have no feelings about the person or their situation. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to help. Sympathy may be all that is needed to facilitate change. We can make change happen because we know what it is to simply . . . feel.
For some not so light reading, these websites will provide wonderful information to ponder.