Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

I know.  The Dalai Lama and innumerable others who are far more evolved than I and have explained the meaning of compassion many times.  Their explanations are eloquent and compelling, but maybe a little cryptic to those, like me, who stand a little outside the “congregation.”  So I’m in search of an understanding that works for me.

Why is this so important?  Because every day there is an event or an experience that calls it forth.  Much of the time, I have friends who are sick, some likely dying.  Some have just died and their families are shaken.  There are too many memorial services these days.  Then, too, my grandchildren sometimes seem so vulnerable that I ache with their small injuries.  The same is true with friends.  At a greater distance, there are people by the millions who are homeless, starving, struggling with three jobs to put food on the table.  I take this personally, and I’d like a better handle on where I stand with them.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I find myself more attuned, more responsive and vulnerable to other people’s suffering than I did as a younger man, maybe because, in retirement, I have more time, maybe because I feel more vulnerable myself these days.  I broke my wrist playing handball with my grandson, for instance, and now I’m a little more leery about physical risk.  Maybe I identify more closely with people’s suffering.

As a consequence, it’s more important to respond to others in ways that support them and seem right to me.  I want to find the best distance, neither intrusive nor cool, neither patronizing nor needy, neither too dark nor too lighthearted.  I want to be there without being a burden.  I want to help but I don’t want to deplete my own resources too much.

There are many names for such positions, often used interchangeably: sympathy, empathy, and compassion, to name a few.  We all lean towards one.  It’s part of our character.  But, depending on circumstances, we are also called to adopt each of these responsive postures.

Let’s begin with sympathy, which seems the simplest of the feelings.  It’s when you are sorry for another person’s struggles.  Sympathy comes with perspective, distance.  It is safer and less emotionally demanding than empathy.  At times, sympathy slips into pity, which introduces a hierarchical relationship that is safer still.  If I pity you, let’s say because you are unable to do things for yourself, then you seem less than I.  in that case, helping you seems to enhance me.

But I believe that people in the psychological and spiritual communities are too quick—and arrogant—in dismissing sympathy.  The sympathy that friends show when we are ill or unhappy often feels good.  Even sympathy cards to mark the death of a loved one feel good.  Sympathy maybe not be deep and it may sometimes be patronizing but, more often than not, it signals that you care and that you will help, if that’s called for.

Much of my training in psychotherapy focused on empathy: the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, to feel as they feel, to know them as they know themselves.  We were specifically enjoined not to try to change others according to our own values and aims but only according to their own, which means that empathy comes first.  But empathy is more than that.  It means sharing deeply with another.  Really being with them when they are in pain, or, for that matter, when the feel good.  I’ve always believed that entering another persons ideas, triumphs, and joys were at least as important as entering their pain.  How else can you help them build on strength.

Empathy is often seen as the beginning of an encounter but sometimes it is enough, in itself.  Just your close company is reassuring, calming.  Just being known from the inside out can make you feel that you are a good enough person.  Having another stand by your side tells you this.

One of the limitations of empathy is that it leaves little to no distance between you and the other person.  It can be deep and demanding.  As a result, it can be exhausting, especially when the other person is in great pain or beset by virtually irresolvable problems.  There is a story told by Martin Buber that illustrates the danger.  A rabbi decides to absorb the pain of his poor and oppressed congregation.  He listens to their stories and admits them to his soul.  As he had hoped, his empathy relieves their suffering but it also threw him into a profound and unshakable depression.

In general, empathy eschews and lacks the perspective that boundaries provide.  Lacking perspective, empathy can be blind to alternatives to the current situation.  By itself, empathy does not lead to action, and it is only action—doing something different—that can relieve the long term problems we face.  This limitation applies both close in with friends and family and on the world’s stage.  It is one thing to empathize with the suffering of the poor; it is another to do something about it.  In such cases, empathy may be a prelude to action.  But not all circumstances lend themselves to solutions, in which case empathy is the best we have to offer.

These days, many people—the Dalai Lama among them—seem to say that compassion is more complex than sympathy and empathy.  According to the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, compassion is “…a multidimensional process comprised of four key components: (1) an awareness of suffering (cognitive/empathic awareness), (2) sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering (affective component), (3) a wish to see the relief of that suffering (intention), and (4) a responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering (motivational).”  (Jazaieri, et al. 2012).

Following this logic, we might begin with sympathy, which includes distance, then move to empathy, which emphasizes our ability to share and feel the suffering of others, and finally achieve a state of compassion, which includes a call to action.  Feeling for and with people but having sufficient distance from them not to get caught in their pain, the compassionate person is more able to alleviate their suffering.

There is a temptation to create a hierarchy of helpful responses and to think of the hierarchy as developmental, with the most evolved among us moved most by compassion.  I am vulnerable to this temptation, but I have my doubts, too.

Compassion strikes me as a cool kind of love, one that is comforting but not entirely personal.  It strikes me as a little more general than empathy, which attends deeply to another person.  This makes compassion a little more comfortable to those who feel and offer it.  When I think of compassion, I feel a little freer, less encumbered.  Tears don’t come to me.  Rather a warm, loosely embracing feeling towards others.  It’s a great feeling.

Compassionate people may wish to alleviate the difficulties of others but they can’t always succeed.  I love and share the impulse.  I love the experience of trying.  But expressing our sympathies is also a form of action that can, sometimes, lessen suffering.  So, too, empathy.  It is not just a simple human act, available to anyone.  It takes effort and practice, and it is often the best we can do and the most we should do.

In conclusion?  I’d say it’s important to have lots of arrows in our quivers: to learn, first, what the other person is asking for and, second, what we are most capable of giving.