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Distinguishing Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

Best Practices in Caring for Others

Distinguishing Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

by Marcus Braybrooke


Sympathy, empathy, compassion; my dictionary treats them as synonyms. Contributors to the important new book Confronting Religious Violence, however, suggest there are important differences. Amineh A. Horti says “Sympathy is me-orientated, empathy is you-orientated.” Giving a few coins to a homeless man on the street may relieve our conscience, but reinforce his feeling “of being at the mercy of everyone further up the ladder,” as The Litany from Calcutta puts it.

Turgenev discovered this when as he wrote, “I was walking along the street … I was stopped by a decrepit old beggar. Bloodshot, tearful eyes, blue lips … I began feeling in all my pockets … no purse, no watch, not even a handkerchief… I had nothing… The beggar was still waiting … his outstretched hand feebly shook and trembled. Confused, abashed, I warmly clasped the filthy, shaking hand … ‘Don’t be angry brother; I have nothing, brother.’ The beggar’s blue lips smiled as he gripped my chilly fingers. ‘What of it, brother. Thanks for this, brother; this too is a gift.’ And Turgenev reflects “I knew that I too had received a gift from my brother.”

Empathy is focusing on the other. David Howe, perhaps optimistically, has called this, “The Age of Empathy.” As we focus on the needs of the other, “refugees coming to Europe become human beings, not just numbers.” Such “reflexive anthropology,” as sociologists call it, allows the researcher to arouse his or her own consciousness and to explore the feelings and emotions of the subjects of his or her own subjects.

Clearly this attempt to enter into the world of the other is important. But, to my mind, it is more difficult than some people suggest. The common remark, “I know how you feel,” which becomes an excuse for your visitor to tell you about his or her operation, can be wearisome. I remember being shown round Hiroshima by a Buddhist who was a child at the time the bomb was dropped. She told me her story without bitterness, and I felt a bonding with her. But I could never feel what she had felt – nor can I, however closely I listen, begin to enter into the horrific memories of those who survived the concentration camps. Allowing them to tell their story may be helpful for them; but sympathetic silence would seem to me the only response.

The Gold Standard

Marc Gopin, another contributor to Confronting Religious Violence, suggests that empathy is not enough. “Compassion,” he says, “is defined as empathy plus an intense kind of solidarity or identification with the other being, which results in thoughts and acts of kindness, benevolence, and love.” He also suggests that prolonged empathy for those who suffer in war can make a person cynical, angry, or despairing. By contrast those who practice a life of altruism and compassion are energized. He relates this to current neuroscience and psychosocial studies.

Gopin also warns that intense compassion for victims of violence may create feelings of violence toward the aggressors. I have noticed that some people, who rightly speak for Palestinians who have been unjustly deprived of their homes, move from criticism of the Israeli government to anti-Semitism and the hatred of all Jews. Gopin, therefore, insists that compassion needs the guidance of reason.  “Compassion and reason need each other.” Reason “transforms principles into laws that apply to all.” This, he suggests, is the legacy of the Enlightenment. Kant’s dream in Perpetual Peace was that there are universal principles that can guide governments and international systems – a dream that the United Nations and the Court of International Justice try to put into practice.

Photo:    Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

The Enlightenment, however, Gopin argues, failed to create societies strong enough to resist totalitarianism and demagoguery. Too easily, he says, “the amygdala (an ancient core of the brain activated  at times of extreme threat that floods out the rational  calculations of the prefrontal cortex) can easily be driven to violence without the habituated positive effects of  a well-trained independent neocortex.” He also says that “it is a basic fact of psychology that self-control is one of the deepest challenges for human beings, no matter how educated we become”. Spiritual and religious traditions, at their best, he says, by a daily discipline “help to cultivate a compassionate heart and a universal concern for all people and all life.” As Jesus said, “we must be born again.”

Real change only comes with a change of heart – and that is person by person. The old prayer says, “Change the world and begin by me.” But changing the world takes time! How in the meantime – as we wait for the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth – do we translate that compassion into our personal and public life? This is a vital task. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us all the tranquillity and happiness we all seek.”

Photo:    Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

Two other words feature in the closing chapters: justice and mercy. Justice in society, it has been said, is the communal expression of compassion. More than 4,000 years ago the Sumerian Emperor Urukagina claimed to have “protected the orphans and the widows.” Many of the laws in the Hebrew Bible focus on protecting the powerless and those in need. Michael Welker argues that the focus of education for peace should not just be on confronting on the darkest acts of human cruelty, but on the common forms of hate which include neglect and undervaluing the other – something of which many of us are guilty.

It comes back to the Golden Rule, found in most religions and emphasized in the Global Ethic: that we should do to others as we would have them do to others. Confronting Religious Violence helps us see how to apply this in particular and often challenging situations.

Header Photo: Pixabay