Art by Vivian Hsia
Transparency Item: The Perspectives section of the Graphic is comprised of articles based on opinion. This is the opinion and perspective of the writer.
I remember sitting in on a friend’s family argument as my friend’s teenage brother — we’ll call him Tony — repeatedly shouted, “You don’t understand, mom!”
Sitting awkwardly, I realized something while pretending to eat my food. Tony was right. His mom doesn’t understand.
Tony was skipping school due to stress, and his mother was heartbroken. Tony’s mother felt pity for her son’s stress but wanted him to go back to school.
Tony yearned for empathy from his mother, while all his mother showed was sympathy.
“Sympathy is a feeling of sincere concern for someone who is experiencing something difficult or painful,” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Empathy involves actively sharing in the person’s emotional experience.”
Tony’s mother was not empathetic. She didn’t share in Tony’s anxiety and dread. All those emotions were uniquely Tony’s. After all, how is it even possible to completely empathize with someone?
On some level, we can empathize, but by the nature of separate embodiment, Tony’s mom will never fully understand his feelings.
Built into the difference between sympathy and empathy is the level of detachment. Sympathy is detached from the other person; we feel sympathy for someone’s problems, but fundamentally, we are imposing our worldview upon another. In empathy, we are letting go of our worldview and actively trying to digest and merge into another’s worldview.
If Tony’s mother truly “understood,” she’d let Tony skip school. She would allow her point of view to be consumed by Tony’s, agreeing the stress is too much.
In this case, empathy might not be the right approach. Actively sharing Tony’s emotional experience would not help the situation. It would result in Tony still missing school, this time with the rock-solid approval of his mother.
Empathy is not the right choice in many cases.
For example, therapy is often misconstrued as an empathetic practice, where the therapist truly understands and feels one’s pain. However, Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen professor emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, explains why therapy would be impossible if therapists were to be empathetic. Therapists would not be able to function by using empathy.
“My [therapist] friend does get into her clients’ heads, of course — she would be useless if she couldn’t — but she doesn’t feel what they feel. She employs understanding and caring, not empathy,” Bloom wrote.
In fact, the therapist doesn’t even feel sympathy negatively when confronted with the clients’ problems: “[she] finds it exhilarating. She is engaged by her clients’ problems, interested in the challenges that arise, and excited by the possibility of improving their lives.”
Regarding practical problem-solving, it seems that empathy is a toss-up. Empathy is an approach and way of communication that is neither good nor bad.
If empathy is not suitable for problem-solving, what good is it? Personally, I think the primary purpose of empathy is artistic appreciation. Poems, movies and musicals all are best enjoyed in a mode of empathy, for there is no problem being solved in appreciating aesthetics. They are “purposive, but without any definite purpose,” as Kant said.
Empathy is exemplified when one feels the stalwart but tragic tone of “Immortality” by Clare Harner, hears the rush and burning ambition of Hamilton and sees a man descend from good to evil in “Godfather II.” The arts are best appreciated when one empties oneself and feels the emotions of others.
So should we abandon empathy entirely except when it comes to aesthetic appreciation?
Yes. But most people miss one key element of aesthetic appreciation— every single human being, with their own story and unique feature they bring to this life, has a value that is “purposive, but without any definite purpose.” Every individual is a work of art and deserves to be appreciated empathetically.
I think that’s what Tony really wanted. He never really thought he was right for skipping school. He just didn’t feel like his mom was even trying to hear him.
So should we lean toward empathy or sympathy? It depends. Only by knowing their differences can we start knowing which approach we want.
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