Monday, September 22, 2008

Empathy vs Sympathy in the race for the Wild Card

If a blog is good for anything other than chiseling down our predictions for all the world to see, it has to be the occasional bout of pedantry. So here’s one.

The other day, the Milwaukee Brewers, with whom my Mets are currently battling for a playoff spot, looked as if they might be righting themselves from a late season nose dive. They were leading their division rival Cubs by four runs in the ninth, in Chicago, only to blow the lead, and then lose the game in the bottom of the 12th, having put runners on second and third with none out in the top of the 12th and failing to plate them.

A brutal, brutal loss. As I wrote to a couple fellow Met fans that same evening, in advising them to check out the boxscore: “Now THAT’S empathy.”

My point, in saying so, was this:

Back when I was a kid, and into my early teens (I was born in ’65), it was enough to say that you sympathized with someone. If they were going through a difficult time, broke their leg during the summer vacation, for instance, it sufficed to say, “Hey, I sympathize” or even “I can sympathize.”

Then roundabout 1984, a whole new word was discovered. It had been there all along of course, but for some reason, the word “empathize” got unearthed. (I’m now wondering how much this had to do with the emergence of the concept of “empaths” in comic books and on Star Trek: The next Generation, which featured, as ship-counselor, an attractive young “empath” of a stubborn Greek/Turkish lineage, Deanna Troi.)

In any case, the difference between empathy and sympathy is a subtle one, and like most all English words, subjective. Generally, though, sympathy is understood to represent an expression of shared feeling with the subject (usually a sufferer), while empathy expresses an actual identification with the subject, usually based upon the shared experience – again, usually of suffering.

That’s all a little fudge-y, granted, fudge-y enough that the popular understanding of this difference, at least to judge by the steady creep of the word “empathy” between the early 80s and now, was that empathy, insofar as it expressed a kind of One-ness with the Other, was basically like sympathy times two. The early, pioneering usages of the term were a little more furtive. They’d have gone something like “Broke your leg? Hey, I sympathize – no, actually I totally empathize – with you.” Empathizing was a way of ratcheting up your expression of sympathy – going from a peck to a French kiss -- while at the same time permitting a not-unsubtle note of egoism. As in, that’s how much I care. Screw sympathy. I have empathy, because of what I know and where I’ve been. I AM you, my friend.

And slowly but surely, as this widely accepted view gained purchase, that empathy was just a larger, greater, more potent version of sympathy, sympathy got kicked to the curb, it got treated like a rented mule; like the notion of “giving 100%” (having suffered so in the face of athletes giving 110%, then 115%, and now 300%), to the point now where now, in 2008, you almost never hear it mentioned anymore. You would never hear a TV newsman say, “I think we can all sympathize with the victims of Katrina.” At this point, one would have to say, “I think we can all empathize with the victims of Katrina,” as if we all know, we’ve all had our houses swept away, we are all Louisianans, and Georgians, AND Berliners, we are all Christ and Buddha, and Deanna Troi. To express anything less than complete unity and oneness withal – that is, to be merely “sympathetic” with what someone else is going through -- would sound like an insult.

See, but needless to say, I’ve always felt this gets the whole dynamic wrong. My take on empathy was always that it was a (potentially) compassion-free expression of identification with someone else’s plight, insofar as it was based (assuming one is not either Christ or Deanna Troi) upon a perceived common experience. So an easy example from my life would be, if I heard about another married couple who were having trouble conceiving a child, I could very quickly say, “Oh, I empathize,” meaning simply, “hey, I’ve been there,” Which is true, I have, so I know, I can feel, and to that extent, I can identify with much of what they’re going through, the same as I can identify with much of what the Milwaukee Brewers fans have been going through this past week. As a Mets fan, I empathize.

Does it mean I care? Does it mean I sympathize? Hell, no. As I say, I'm a Mets fan. To my way of thinking, there’s nothing remotely disconsonant in saying, “I am giddy with empathy for Milwaukee Brewers fans right now.” I know exactly what they’re going through, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

And this is my point. Not only do I not understand empathy to be a more powerful or potent expression of sympathy, I believe it to be a far less powerful expression – of compassion, at least. All empathy ever really meant (in my book) was that I identify, or I can identify with the plight of the person at question, having been there. It says nothing about whether that identification moves me to have actual compassion for the Other. What moves me to feel compassion for them is…well, sympathy, which is based either upon the inherent magnanimity of my spirit, or the fact that I am for whatever reason fond of whomever we’re talking about. Perhaps this is all an explanation of what makes me a class-A prick, because maybe I should sympathize with everyone I empathize with, but I don’t think I do. That couple heading in for their fifth unsuccessful IVF? They could be horrible people for all I know. Maybe they hunt baby seals on vacation. Maybe they voted for Bush twice. I don’t know. So they can have my empathy, sure, when they find out the “bad” news. My sympathy, I keep; I keep for when I feel it, and let me point out in defense for what may sound like a pretty heartless position a) that I’m not advocating the judgmental portioning of one’s compassion so much as trying to define the use of a term, and that b) I don’t even sympathize with myself most of the time. I empathize with myself – all the time – but as for the sympathy I extend my own lament, my own personal tales of woe? Eh.

By the same token, when the shoe is on the other foot, when I am on the receiving end of these same two expressions, my feelings are commensurately distinct. If someone says to me, “I empathize with you,” I take it for what it’s worth. I appreciate what they’re saying – that they must feel they have been through something similar and to that extent can “feel” me – but I also can’t help but detect a taint of pretentiousness and self-aggrandizement in their saying so, in the first place because I don’t really believe they know what they’re saying – for me, the word always sounds like someone using “whom” when they shouldn’t – but also because I feel like, to the extent they actually do know what they’re saying, all they’re really doing is using my plight to call attention to themselves and what they’ve been through, which suggests a very high likelihood that they have no idea what I’m going through, they’re so trapped in their solipsistic little universe.

On the other hand, if someone comes out and says I “sympathize”, well, there I hear an authentic expression of support and compassion, borne of nothing other than the mysterious generosity of the human spirit, a desire to share my suffering not because this person has been through it, too, but because they are a friend, and because they WANT to bear my burden with me.

When someone says to me, “I empathize,” I feel like I’m supposed to reply, “Oh, really what happened to you?”

When they say, “I sympathize,” I just want to say, “Thank you, brother, that’s very kind.”

In the coming days, look for similiar installments on the expressions "buck naked," and "begs the question."