I'm reading
The path from pity to empathy
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The path from pity to empathy
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The path from pity to empathy
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
19 December 2017

The path from pity to empathy

With empathy there is no distance.

Written by BJ Miller

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

I feel sorry for you.
I feel for you.
I feel you.

Pity, sympathy, empathy. Just a few words make up the difference, but what a difference. All three of these can lead you eventually to compassionate action, which you might say is the goal. But they come from different places, say different things about you, and have a different effect on all involved.

The first sentence—I feel sorry for you—represents pity. It reflects the most distant stance. In fact, it might even serve to keep the distance. We feel sorry for those who we’d never want to be, and don’t see ourselves as. I feel sorry for the poor, wretched things. And so it’s also a label—you’ve seen the person, judged them on some level, and deemed them less, or at least something you’d never want to be. And it also leans the sentiment more towards you and your feelings rather than the sufferers. While it might be a very honest statement—and honesty rules—it’s undoubtedly the lowliest station of the bunch. That kind of honesty isn’t particularly flattering or pleasant or useful to either party. It’s more likely insulting and discouraging, probably the opposite of what you intend to get across. Pity is the scourge that so often befalls the disability community, I can tell you, and I’d imagine any other group of people marked by struggle. Pity can taste sweet for a moment—it’s attention, I suppose, which beats indifference, maybe—but will be rejected by a savvy sufferer.

The middle statement—I feel for you—is sympathy. It’s a better station than pity for sure. It suggests concordance between you and the subject of your emotion: that you are feeling something similar. Like cousin pity, it connotes distance—less of it but still an arm’s length away. Sympathy is still a projection and therefore likely fraught with assumptions and accidental insults. If pity is mostly about you, then sympathy is about both of you. Two people feeling similar things in parallel. Sympathy. Sym-, this root means together, or same. Plenty of good stuff in there too, but it ain’t the pinnacle pathway to the balm of compassion.

That honour goes to empathy. There is no distance in I feel you. Em-, this root means inside, within. This one crosses the plane between you and the subject. Not next-to but entwined.  With empathy there is no distance. I feel you = I am you. On this note your fortunes are linked.  It’s the most attuned, the most courageous and the least egoic. Your intellect or imagination can’t get you there alone, as it can with pity or even sympathy. Empathy is visceral. Whoever is the object of your empathy is doubled. They are not alone; neither of you is.

We now know from recent neuroscience and imaging that there are things called mirror neurons, a neural circuitry that allows us to feel the feelings of others. If I see you touch a hot stove, I feel pain. We have inborn wiring for this. An actual, physical means of connection. With these paths intact, the outside world comes in (and vice versa). Without them intact, emotional connections become difficult to impossible.

I pity folks who can’t empathise. Or maybe I sympathise with them. Empathy, after all, opens up a direct tunnel of emotion, and when you hang out around people who are struggling, their suffering becomes your own. I have enough of my own pain dammit. A little distance sounds nice. But look closer and you’ll see that argument is much the same as ignorance is bliss.  Pursuing ignorance seems…dumb, doesn’t it?

BJ Miller

BJ Miller is a hospice and palliative medicine physician who thinks deeply about how to create a dignified, graceful end of life for his patients.

Feature image by Angela Decenzo

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