The good old difference between empathy and sympathy. Most times we think we are being empathetic when we are being sympathetic because we hugged someone and tried our best not to say anything that would patronize them or the right to their feeling and suffering.
I have also, like most, always believed that empathy is preferable, for one reason- it is not judgmental.
A few days ago I had a conversation with one of my students on this. She felt that the English language demeaned sympathy. In Russian, for instance, where she came from and where I too come from in half, the equivalent of sympathy is a genuine feeling of someone’s sorrow rather than a sense of detached pity.
As I probed this, I received news. “We are so heartbroken to announce my dad passed away on Sunday night…” This was someone whom we shared early childhood memories with. Her father was like an uncle to me. At some point, people moved countries and we lost touch. But thinking of them, thinking of this death, thinking of the funeral was difficult! I had to relive my past, I had to remember my late parents- how I buried them. Then, I needed to attend the funeral; something I realized I tend to avoid but would not in this case, due to the closeness we once shared.
I arrived, feeling uncomfortable. I discreetly walked in. They saw me. They gave a nod acknowledging my presence and that is when I got stuck. I did not know how to look at them, I did not know what to say because I was in a place and in a time, where the only way in was through. I had to do the difficult task of going back inside me and embracing my past. I had to go back to the day I buried my own parents, I had to see the day her father and my father sat side by side having a drink as we played nearby and life seemed normal. Being children we never imagined that it could have been any other way. I had to let myself feel the heartbreak, my heart break. In short, I had to find that thing in me that could feel what she was feeling and only then did I manage to have a genuine facial expression that showed, “yes, I know how you feel, I am with you right now.”
The difference became clear to me. Empathy, though thought of as preferable, grows from ego-centrism. It forces you to go back to you before you can reach out to anyone else. It forces you to let yourself be vulnerable. The best thing about it, is that it gives you a chance to heal past wounds; the many clusters we have repressed.
But, I also learnt that sympathy is not of less value, as in the Russian language. You can feel sorry and present with someone without making yourself vulnerable. Sometimes we need those people, who hug you with a smile and say, “it’s going to get better,” when your empathetic friend is just not sure it is!
“It’s going to be hard,” I said.