A still from the RSA animation of Brené Brown's talk on empathy vs sympathy (animated by Katy Davis – her website is www.gobblynne.com)
A still from the RSA animation of Brené Brown's talk on empathy vs sympathy (animated by Katy Davis – her website is www.gobblynne.com)

Is “Sympathy” a Dirty Word?

Part of my job is to be an “internship coach” for a program that introduces our high school students to the fire service. Once a month the kids and I meet at a fire station, learn some cool stuff about what firefighters do, how to become one, then we slap on some turn-outs and take a hydrant or carve up a dummy car with power tools – it’s great. In December we hosted a guest speaker: a very eloquent firefighter named Will, who is earning his degree in counseling on the side. Our subject was Stress, Trauma, Coping and Resilience for First Responders. The highlight was a standing meditation, guided by Will. I’ve always had trouble meditating on my own, but I was grateful for the excuse to let go and only listen to my breathing for ten minutes in the middle of a workday.

During the Q&A period, Will fielded a question about the difference between empathy and sympathy. I might have even asked it, I can’t quite remember, but either way I knew his response before it came out of his mouth. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing) “imagine you see someone stuck down in a hole, helpless. Sympathy is looking down at them and saying ‘oof…sorry you got stuck in that hole!’ – empathy is climbing down into the hole with them.”

I really enjoyed Will’s talk, but this bit bugged me. His analogy was eerily similar to a video I watched three years ago, training as a summer camp counselor…

The speaker is Brené Brown, a 'researcher/storyteller' whose TED talk The Power of Vulnerability has over 25 million views.

I have strong reason to believe Will has also watched this video, and is propagating its irksome wisdom. The empathetic bear is a courageous, infallible paragon, while the sympathetic moose is a dick.  He peddles flippant, detached reassurances and condolences, if not cruelty.  What kind of monster would reply “at least you can get pregnant” to someone who just had a miscarriage??

Brené Brown’s advice is sound when it comes to approaching sensitive, uncomfortable conversations: in a sense, my qualms root from semantics.  Let’s define sympathy in Brown’s terms. She associates the concept with painting a “silver lining” around someone’s problems, and a reluctance to connect with the suffering of others. She suggests that “at least…” statements are he misguided product of sympathy.  Instead of pity or informed compassion, “sympathy” represents tactlessness, or any response to suffering that is not wholly empathetic.  She has utilized a famously tricky distinction between “sympathy” and “empathy” in order to redefine the former as a misguided, inadequate attempt at the latter.

But I’m not satisfied with this new dichotomy, even if it largely boils down to wordplay – language is important! An educated distinction between sympathy and empathy is useful, so I will highlight a few areas of Brown’s popular thesis that I find problematic.
 

“Sympathy drives disconnection.”

 
If Brené Brown feels she can alter the connotation of sympathy for the sake of her argument, then I might as well throw my hat in the ring.  As far as a conventional definition of sympathy, Google offers, “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” as well as “understanding between people” – how this differs from empathy is ripe for debate.  So here’s my qualification: sympathy is a moral allegiance based on basic human values and a sound understanding of right and wrong – yes, it is a judgment, calculated but compassionated.  Empathy, on the other hand, is not an intellectual judgment but a visceral – or imagined! – experience of sharing someone else’s feelings.

My definition of sympathy borrows from what psychologist Paul Bloom calls “rational compassion.”  Bloom’s new book Against Empathy deals largely with the difference between empathy and rational compassion: his recent conversation with Sam Harris on the Waking Up podcast was one of the reasons I wanted to write on this topic (Bloom’s synopsis in the Boston Review is well-written and concise, as are the other opinions within the “forum” – I’ll quote from them occasionally here, but I won’t extensively summarize and spoil some excellent reading!)

So considering my distinction, how do sympathy and empathy manifest themselves in our lives?

As a Washington Redskins fan, I empathize with other Redskins fans – and Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills fans, or any other good-hearted patron of an oft mediocre and embarrassing sports franchise. I feel that pain.

The face of disappointment.
The face of disappointment.

(YouTube won’t let me embed this DeSean Jackson punt return, but it might be one of the sorriest “Redskins moments” I’ve ever watched live.)

On the other hand, I deeply sympathize with Native American groups and other activists who rightfully criticize the name “Redskins” – what’s the difference here? Well, as a white guy who grew up watching the Redskins and not being called racial slurs, I am not offended by the term “Redskins.” And I don’t need to be: the use of a slur as a team name is morally outrageous, which is why Dan Snyder needs to make the change.

I revel in the joyous moods of my dog, Bunson, and all the other adorable animals of this planet, yet I am utterly repulsed by naked mole rats. I am convinced that no one will ever show me a picture that could elicit any kind of emotional tickle. If I found out that they will be extinct in a matter of months, though, I would be alarmed, bridled with sympathy for the scientific community and the ecosystems that depend on their contributions. Similarly, I am not intensely affected by YouTube videos of cows and pigs being mutilated and fed into giant sawmills and the like. Still, I sympathize with animal rights groups and advocates of vegetarianism and veganism, even if I find their methods of persuasion cloying and self-righteous.

Empathizing with something or someone we view as disgusting is almost impossible – but sympathizing, as a function of rationality, is far more achievable.
Empathizing with something or someone we view as disgusting is almost impossible – but sympathizing, as a function of rationality, is far more achievable.

On the Boston Review forum, the interminable Israel-Palestine dilemma has drawn a lot of opinions with regard to empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen (and President Obama) believe Israel would be less keen on bombing Gaza if they could only imagine the terror and distress they are causing to real human beings; Sam Harris and Jesse Prinz retort that empathy is actually the cause of these sort of conflicts, motivating enraged partisans to avenge their murdered loved ones. Harris argues that a distant Palestinian sympathizer may be ignoring that Hamas is “an avowedly genocidal organization that uses its own civilians as human shields” and are instead swayed by images of dead children and weeping parents. Yes, sympathies can be triggered by empathic distress, but also persuaded and reshaped by reason and ethical thinking.  If sympathy for the oppressed causes disconnection from the oppressor, well, so be it.
 

“…you want a sandwich?” (an aside)

 
True asking a grieving mother if she wants a sandwich is not all that graceful. But on that note: making food for a family or person who is going through a tough spot is a really thoughtful, caring response – this is common practice when teachers go on extended sick leave.

Will mentioned that the Sunday after the awful warehouse fire in Oakland, the fire department opened up their union hall to the responders, threw the 49ers game on a projector, and lined the room with food and drink of all kind. Stress eating isn’t healthy, sure, but communalizing trauma over meals is an age-old societal tradition. The warriors of the Iliad held a truce and a communal feast each night to honor their dead. The ending of Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing” finds a gruff baker admitting a grieving couple to his kitchen in the middle of the night. They have just lost their son – after weeks of anguish and confusion, they spend all night eating bread and talking with the kind-hearted baker. In my opinion, it is one of the most powerful moments of compassion in all of literature.

Everyone eats food. A good meal cooked just for you is a universal symbol of affection that speaks for itself. It is a safe, considerate way to show compassion for someone who you may not know too well, or even someone you have never particularly liked.
 

“Empathy is a choice.”

 
…is it?  We can train ourselves to become more open-minded and sensitive, sure, but being affected someone else’s experience usually isn’t a conscious choice.  In defending empathy, Bloom’s thoughtful critic Nomy Arpaly nonetheless provides a useful example of central caveat: “Those of us who can’t watch violent movies without feeling the characters’ pain are probably no better at compassion and at doing the right thing than those who can watch Tarantino with equanimity.”

The full conversation between Sam Harris and Paul Bloom. I don't agree with all of Bloom's points, but his perspective is fresh and fascinating. At the 4 minute mark, Bloom mentions a neurological study about the empathic reactions of male soccer fans when confronted with images of torture that I find particularly compelling.

Portland hosts a large homeless population; standing or sitting off the exit ramp near my apartment, there is usually a grizzled older guy whom I like to gift change or leftover goodies from my lunch sack. I can relate to being unpleasantly cold or wet, sure, as well as smelling bad, being hungry, and standing all day – but not in the style or degree this man experiences those sensations, which to me is almost unimaginable. Opening my window and handing him a bag of food is a much-appreciated gesture and a good-spirited thing to do, but it does not have to involve emotional stimulation.

Interactions with homeless people are not always and certainly don’t have to be so impersonal, but sometimes circumstance must dictate (it is much, much easier for both of us if I open my window and hand over a bag of food than park my car, get out, run across a busy intersection to hang out with him on the median, and thus distract him from other potentially munificent commuters). In fact, I’ll admit that I am wary – if not disdainful – of beggars who approach me with (often elaborate) stories of cars breaking down and needing bus fare to see family members who are states away. Attempts to incite my sense of empathy for money instead annoy me, especially when “could you spare some change?” is an effective appeal. Relying on an emotional reaction to prompt an act of charity reveals the inevitable bias of empathy: certain people naturally elicit stronger empathic responses than others, which is why most humanitarian aid websites feature mostly images of mothers and young children, or why many older homeless men advertise their veteran status. As Mother Teresa admitted, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” I know I am not the only person who finds that phenomenon unsettling.

Humanitarian aid groups tickle our emotions for a good cause – but do we need to be constantly triggered to act and give out of compassion?
Humanitarian aid groups tickle our emotions for a good cause – but do we need to be constantly triggered to act and give?

 

Climbing out of the hole

 
The main shortcoming of Brené Brown’s understanding of empathy and sympathy is that her context is very narrow. She describes the virtues of empathy in one-on-one encounters, which makes sense given her focus as a social worker. But broadly redefining empathy and sympathy within her confines muddies any extension into the realm of global politics and national policies, where the concepts are just as relevant. The most thoughtful Americans probably probably find empathizing with the experiences and opinions of ISIS fighters a messy affair. Even in my daily life as a school employee, connection has its limits. I do not know what my students’ lives are like outside of school, and I am sometimes shocked by details they choose to divulge to me in conversation or in their writing. I follow Brené Brown’s advice in my interactions with them, even when I can’t imagine how deep their holes are – or whether or not they realize they’re in one.

Empathy and sympathy should coexist – not conflict – as independent components of compassion and ethical thinking. As a model of this interplay in action, consider how Werner Herzog began his interview with a convicted (and guilty) death row inmate in Into the Abyss. He told the man, bluntly (and again, I’m paraphrasing): “I don’t have to like you – but because we are having a conversation and you are a human being, I will respect you.” Sympathy for Perry’s plight as a death row inmate does not contradict with sympathy for his victims, nor with the connection he and Herzog forge through their conversation.

As a person subject to constant frustrations and occasional violent thoughts, I certainly can empathize with the woman who got tired of her five-year-old’s whining and smacked him across the face in front of me on one of the most uncomfortable train rides of my life. But I don’t sympathize with child abuse or abusers. And that distinction is essential.

A sequence of interview clips from Into the Abyss – Herzog's blurb isn't in here, but I promise it's in the full movie!
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