The 2012 Act Three Journey of an Actress/Coach/Writer.

Day 3 Empathy vs. Indifference

Posted by themirrenlee on 03/01/2012



For me, the first represents hope for peace and happiness, the second the road to continued cruelty around the world.

Empathy is not sympathy, although that is necessary, too.  Sympathy is caring about how someone feels, empathy is really understanding how they feel by sharing whatever it is with them.  It’s a hard emotion to put into practice because it takes a big emotional chunk of yourself to actually go on someone’s path with them, for however brief a moment.  Which is why it’s much rarer than sympathy.  Sympathy is easy, really.  You say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and move on.  Empathy requires you to share the pain, feel it with the other person, and thus comfort them through real understanding.  Very few people want to feel alone in their pain, whatever it is.  To paraphrase the saying, “A joy shared is a joy doubled, a pain shared is a pain halved.”

Growing up, I suffered acutely from asthma.  In the U.S. until the early 60s, it was considered a psychiatric condition.  While my wheezing increased and my lips turned blue, I was told it was all in my head.  Even when I got sympathy instead of indifference, there was still no understanding of what I was going through, no one with whom to share the terror of not being able to breathe.  There was no empathy.

I believe everything in life happens for a reason.  That belief sustains and comforts me, as well as amazes me at those times when the reason is revealed!  My asthma experience prepared me for the chronic illness I developed as an adult, called fibromyalgia.  It is better understood today than it was when I was first diagnosed over 20 years ago, when it was called fibrositis, but it is still shrouded in great ignorance, and not just by the average person but by most doctors.

Chronic illness makes people impatient with the sufferer, usually because they can’t understand, in this day and age of miracle science and technology, why it can’t just be cured.  And pain has a worse affect on people – I find it irritates them more than anything.  This is usually because they probably have some kind of pain, too, somewhere, and they’ll say, “Oh, yes, I know what that’s like because I get migraines/back aches/sore feet, etc., too.”  Or maybe they have emotional pain, which is no less painful.  So they will offer sympathy, but what a chronic illness sufferer needs, someone who day in and day out wonders if today will be the day they hit their wall and just can’t go on, what they really need is empathy.  The feeling that someone understands really deep down how they’re feeling and shares that “emotional hug” with them.  There are thousands of websites out there filled with sufferers of chronic illnesses talking about how no one understands how they feel.

Why is this important, why should anyone care about empathy in general?  Because to me, that is what’s wrong with the world today – society seems to have become used to suffering to the point that it means nothing.  Victims of war, rapes, murders, mutilations, and so on and so on, the famines and starving millions, the orphaned children, the homeless, the poverty stricken, the refugees, the endless stream of human misery that we see on our TV screens and our computers.  It has become so constant and prevalent that we have “compassion fatigue”.  We send money and express our sympathy, but really we seem to have shut down and lost the ability to empathize with the suffering we see because it is just too much to bear.  It’s understandable to a degree – if we felt the pain of all the millions in pain then we would ourselves find it too much and implode.  But we need to increase our sympathy to a little bit more of an empathetic level so that we stop blaming the victims and turning away the refugees.  If you could feel, really feel, what it must be like to suffer the way so many people are suffering, then I believe that the relief of this world wide epidemic would be at the top of everyone’s agenda, no matter what race, creed, color, political party or religion.

In the meantime, do something on a small scale.  The next time someone shares their pain with you, don’t just sympathize and pat them on the head, so to speak.  Really listen, really hear them, and really feel what they’re going through.  Empathize with them.  Take that small step to help heal the world.

I’m just sayin’ …

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