Wednesday, August 17, 2005


I'm asking myself, "How is Empathy different from Compassion? What are the differences? Are there differences between the two?" I have decided to meditate on this subject and find out. I want to know what it really means to Empathize with another being. Is there a difference, also, between Empathy and Sympathy? I say yes, there is.

The difference between being empathetic and being sympathetic is quite clear to me. Sympathy is when you have pity on another being. You feel badly for them when things go wrong. It is sort of a passive emotion. There isn't necessarily any action involved in it. It is as if you were looking through a window at what is happening inside. It's not a personal involvement in the situation being observed. The difference between Empathy and Sympathy is vast.

Empathy is the action of involving yourself in the suffering of another. It is almost like it's a shield or a defense of the validity and reality of a person's pain. Whereas sympathy is seperately removed from the situation; Empathy actually gets right into the situation and provides love, nourishment and comfort. Picture a mother with her baby. She knows what it needs-attention, love, nurturing, comforting and gives that selflessly, no matter how she herself feels, to her child. Doesn't that also sound alot like compassion? Empathy is showing compassion by example.

Empathy is the feeling that one gets when one has greatly suffered, himself, and can relate to what another suffering being is going through. They may not have gone through the exact same thing, but they can understand the kind of hell and torment that you feel when you have suffered loss, illness, or some other devastation in your life. It is the feeling that you get when you think, "Hey, I've walked in those moccasins. I know the feeling of those rocks poking into my feet, the thirst along the way, the exhaustion and the knowledge that there may be no end in sight." You can, literally, feel the struggle and the pain, because you have either been there or are in the midst of your own battle right now.

In order for us to develop true compassion, we must, first, have developed Empathy. Empathy is a facet of knowledge. It requires listening and attention. It is the key to compassion. Again it is a practice that we develop in order to mature. We become aware of the sad experiences of others. We can experience, vicariously, their pain and suffering. Empathy, the word, comes from the Greek, empatheia, which means, quite literally, passion.

When you look back at history, you can see that all social change and revolution is ignited by passion, by the empathy of the oppressed. Slaves travelled to the north, by dangerous means, encountering numerous trials and harsh circumstances, in order to spread the message that serious change was necessary. To make men understand that it is wrong to enslave any person, regardless of race or creed. Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman are only a couple of the instigators of change among the handful. They became instruments of life changing reform and they had been, themselves oppressed. In fact, they worked for this change in the midst of their oppression, because they knew the suffering that others just like them were going through.

If you look at Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks among many others, you can see that out of their own oppression, grew the civil rights movement that to this day continues to change lives.

Ghandi is another man who effected change. He knew what it was like to be oppressed from his experiences as a third class citizen in South Africa. Because of him, a movement for the abolishment of apartheid began in South Africa and was finished many decades later. But the reform had begun, because he was empathetic to the suffering and the oppression. Then, he went on to become one of the greatest revolutionaries of our time, by adopting the Non-violence, Non-cooperation principle to effect change from within his own country.

Jesus Christ was another famous revolutionary, preaching freedom from spiritual slavery and oppression. His cause was to effect change, not necessarily from a country, though he did have an effect on that, but, rather, to effect change within the heart. The most important of his message is that we can approach God ourselves, without having to go through a middle-man (ie, a priest, to recieve forgiveness, comfort, nurturing, love. This was a revolutionary message at his time and still is though, for the most part, we take that message for granted as our right, today. Yet, he was oppressed and even gave his life, like so many other activists, for his cause. That is why his death is called, The Passion of Christ. It was passion and empathy that drove him. He felt the suffering and the pain. He knew what it was like to be in pain, to be impoverished, to be enslaved and to be killed.

All of these leaders were willing to give up their own lives, to suffer imprisonment, ridicule and torture in order to further a cause that would release individuals from suffering. That very passion is the definition of Empathy. Why? Because they knew there was a desperate need for the oppressed to have an advocate who understood exactly what they were experiencing.

The only difference I find between Compassion and Empathy is that you have to have empathy in order to practice Compassion. Both require active participation.


At 5:33 PM, Blogger ¬£eslie said...

Empathy is when you can imagine what someone else is going through. Sympathy is when you know what someone else is going through.

Empathy means you have not experienced what the sufferer is experiencing. Sympathy means you have experienced what the sufferer is experiencing.

You are sympathetic to my migraine pain. You are empathetic to my stubbed toe.

Thanks for the advice earlier. I always appreciate it when someone is kind enough to offer their experience. I hope you are doing well tonight. £eslie

At 10:57 PM, Blogger Moogle said...


Great post! You made my think.

I always thought that empathy was being able to feel what the other person was feeling, to put yourself in their shoes. states that empathy is "identifying oneself completely with an object or person, sometimes even to the point of responding physically, as when, watching a baseball player swing at a pitch, one feels one's own muscles flex".

Your statement about sympathy being like looking in on the situation through a window is exactly how I've thought of it as well.

Well done!!


At 11:02 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

It's so good that you have also meditated on this. I think in our situations, it's just so important to find empathy from people who know what we're going through. It seems so rare to find these days, because everyone is so busy, busy, busy. lol

thanks for your comments, Leslie. I so appreciate it. You have no idea how uplifting your blog is to me. I read it every day. Oh, and yer welc.

At 11:04 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

Thanks, Tracy. That definition is so right on. Thanks for reading and leaving comments. I learn so much from you. :)

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