“I want us to organize, to tell the personal stories that create empathy, which is the most revolutionary emotion.” – Gloria Steinem
Sympathy + Empathy: two emotions I’ve been thinking a lot about while studying justice, aid, + development.
They sound similar + get mistaken as the same thing, but they’re actually completely + utterly different.
Last week I had the privilege of hearing a community development worker talk about her experience in Cambodia. The work she does is remarkable as she empowers + encourages villages along the path to self-sufficiency.
And one of the key things she spoke about was sympathy + empathy.
Working in any field where you help people, there comes a time when you have to distinguish between whether you’re sympathising or empathising with the person. Why? Because depending what one you use depends on whether or not you’re truly helping that person.
How this lady defined these two things triggered a light bulb to go off + revolutionised the way I see these two things:
Sympathy: an emotional reaction; focusses on the negative, issue, + weakness; identifies a person as that one issue; disempowers
Empathy: the act of understanding a situation; the context of a person; looks for common ground + the journey forward; looks at the whole person; empowers
She went on to say how sympathy’s response is to take away the thing that makes us uncomfortable.
And that really got me thinking.
How many times have I wanted to help someone because their ‘issue’ made me uncomfortable?
How many times have I avoided eye contact with that homeless person or beggar on the street because they made me uncomfortable? (note: giving money to a homeless person is considered an act of sympathy because it still does not empower that person out of homelessness – it simply takes away your feeling of sympathy).
But empathy sees past the issue + into the journey of that person’s life.
It always seeks to understand + empower a person’s situation.
And that begins by firstly listening to the explanation behind a situation + the heart that yearns for something more.
People don’t want bandaid fixes or pats on the back that leave them the same. They want people who listen, think, uphold, support, + encourage them as they try to change.
People want to be empowered + understood.
I want to be empowered + understood.
What do you want?
“Empathy is the love fire of sweet remembrance and shared understanding.” – John Eaton