Relocations: Sympathy has fallen out of favor

Herbert Rothschild
June 3, 2022

Might it be wise to rehabilitate it?

By Herbert Rothschild

Brené Brown, a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Houston, is the author of five best-selling books. Her subject, generally speaking, is how to be a better human being. Her TED Talk titled “The Power of Vulnerability” has been viewed 55 million times. Another, which contrasts empathy with sympathy, has been less viewed (16 million-plus times), but managed to do something remarkable: namely, it induced people to flip the meaning of its two key terms.

Currently, empathy is widely regarded as indispensable for authentic human relationships, whereas sympathy is a way to hold other people at arm’s length. Brown introduced her subject with this pithy contrast: “Empathy fuels connections; sympathy drives disconnection.” And again, “Empathy is to feel with, sympathy to feel for.”

When I heard this, I was confused. The prefix “sym” in Greek means “together”; combined with “pathos” it generated a word that meant “fellow feeling.” How could that word have lost its reference to genuine connection? Perhaps because the Hallmark Greeting Card Company had attenuated sympathy by allowing us to express it from a distance? In Brown’s TED talk, which is her voice over animated drawings, an empathizing bear climbs into the pit with a literally down-in-the-dumps fox and offers a hug while a sympathizing antelope stays at ground level and offers a sandwich.

The TED Talk also prompted me to wonder what Brown would say about the medical phenomenon called “sympathetic pain,” the experience by one person of the exact physical discomfort experienced by someone they love. Sympathetic pain most frequently has been observed in spouses of pregnant women. Also, I wondered what she would say about “sympathetic magic,” the belief that doing something to the representation of a person, such as a voodoo doll, has the same effect on that person.

When “sympathy” entered the English language in the 16th century, it referenced such affinities between people and things by virtue of which they are correspondingly affected by the same influences. We might say they were believed to share the same force fields. Only gradually did usage detach the word from such non-cognitive connections over which we have little control (unless we are witches and wizards). By the 20th century, sympathy had been almost exclusively located in thoughts and feelings.

It was then that “empathy” entered our language (the Oxford English Dictionary cites its first occurrence in 1904). The word was associated with treatment modalities. As such, while instructions for putting it into practice involved aspects of empathy that Brown identifies, such as deep and non-judgmental listening, it didn’t involve forming a close personal relationship with the patient, and it emphasized understanding rather than feeling. Accordingly, John Dirckz, in “The Language of Medicine” (2nd Ed.), 1993, asserts that “Empathy has become a fad word for sympathy, though it was adopted expressly to mean something different from sympathy: ‘intellectual insight into another’s emotional state without sharing in it.’” As we’ve seen, Brown took a step beyond confusing empathy with sympathy, distinguishing the former from the latter in a way opposite to the original distinction.

Usage changes. It is what it is when it is. In this instance what counts most is what Brown is saying about how we respond to other people in need. She is as interested in the comforter as the one needing comfort, and her analysis relates closely to her conviction that vulnerability, especially to pain and fear, is a prerequisite for meaningful personal relationships. All this strikes me as wise and meriting her large following.

But as with so much in our culture, Brown’s focus is on the individual and the individual’s personal ties. The difficulty here is that none of us has sufficient time and emotional energy to establish many such empathetic relationships. Meanwhile, there are seven billion people on the planet, of whom at any given moment several hundred million are desperate for a sandwich. My goal in investigating the history of Brown’s key terms is discover what of value might be lost by Brown’s denigration of sympathy and whether value might be discovered in earlier conceptions of it.

One of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is that “There is suffering.” I’m inclined to say that suffering is the universal affinity, the force field of the human condition. Unless we try to deny our own suffering — as Brown rightly urges us not to do — we understand that reality. And that understanding connects us to every other human being even though we don’t go down into the pit of their particular sufferings. It doesn’t just affect our personal relationships. It shapes our general disposition and expresses itself in our social, economic and political behavior. Brown’s “empathetic” is an unsuitable characterization of such a disposition and such behavior. I prefer “sympathetic.” The English translation of the Buddhist term is “compassionate.” I like that, too.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at herbertrothschild6839@gmail.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.
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