Different strokes

Different strokes

A young friend asked me the other day whether there is any difference between ‘sympathy and ‘empathy’. Didn’t the two words possess the same meaning?

Both the words, I told her, denote ‘caring’, which is why they are thought to be interchangeable.

However, each has its own import and therefore a separate role to play in life and living. They could be described as ‘different strokes’ and the understanding of the fine distinction between them can help us see the value of both these virtues better.

We will be enabled to forge closer social relationships and promote harmony and happiness.

The words arise from two different roots and are therefore not the same in meaning. ‘Sympathy’ comes from ‘sym’ (together or in union with) and ‘pathy’ (suffer). It means ‘feeling with the other’ and is, on the whole, an emotional response. When somebody you know and love suffers a great loss, you are overcome with sympathy. You make an effort to be by his or her side or at least communicate with the person immediately. To be sympathetic is to reach out to another, to feel his pain and offer consolation.

Empathy comes from ‘em’ (passion) and ‘pathy’ (suffer). It is the ability to imagine the situation that another finds himself in but it does not require taking on his pain and grief. One’s own emotional state need not be identical to that of the other; rather it is made up of concern for the other’s welfare. For instance, if a person gambles and loses heavily, you may feel empathetic but not sympathetic.

As one can see, both emotions serve a useful purpose and have a place in right living. In times of distress and grief, hardly anything can replace kind and comforting words or the sympathetic shoulder that we can cry upon. We realise as never before that a while happiness shared is doubled, sorrow shared is halved.

Empathetic feelings almost always translate into some kind of thoughtful behaviour. It might consist of reaching out to somebody lonely or forgotten, of lending a helping hand to one in need or contributing to a worthy cause. It is putting yourself in another’s shoes either because you have been through a similar situation or are well able to imagine it.

While sympathy is made up mainly of reacting, empathy involves listening and enabling the other to see his problem clearly and reach a solution. It is a communication skill that can be used with success not just within a closed and private circle but applied in a social milieu.

Spiritual growth demands that we practice both sympathy and empathy. Scriptures of all cultures provide us with telling examples. In the Mahabharata, we see Gandhari, wife of King Dhritarashtra, blindfolded all the time. This she did out of sympathy for her blind husband.

It was an impediment, no doubt, but done out of devotion. Lord Krishna’s aid to Arjuna was empathetic in nature. He was well aware of Arjuna’s doubts, but urged him to fight for a just cause. It is a powerful message that has endured and resonates to this day.

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