Is there a difference between empathy and sympathy? Is one better than the other, and if so, why?
Brune Brown has a wonderful video on the differences between sympathy and empathy:
She seems to imply that there is something we can do to become more empathetic but as wonderful as her explanation is, I’m not sure it’s possible.
One of my readers wrote:
I have done some research of Baha’i Holy writings on empathy and so far all writings use the word sympathy to refer to empathy. I think the translators didn’t see the distinction between empathy and sympathy at the time of translation. Maybe your extensive research has found more references on empathy.
From my experience as a psychotherapist and as a victim of abuse, I can immediately experience the results of someone being empathetic and someone being sympathetic. Basically empathy brings people closer together to inspire the victim to create their own healing plan and sympathy pushes people apart and creates more fear.
This caused me to want to see what the Bahá’í Writings had to say, and see if they can shed some light on this important distinction.
First, let’s see what the dictionary can tell us:
The two words are synonyms for each other, so it’s not surprising that there is some puzzlement over the difference.
Sympathy is defined as:
Sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration
Empathy is defined as:
The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another
So with empathy, we understand what others are feeling because we have experienced it ourselves or can put ourselves in their shoes; and in sympathy we acknowledge another person’s emotional hardship and provide comfort and assurance, that may not be received as helpful if the recipient sees you don’t understand.
We sympathy we recognize the person is suffering; with empathy we feel their suffering and suffer with them.
Both sympathy and empathy imply caring for another person, but with empathy, the caring is enhanced or expanded by being able to feel the other person’s emotions.
Sympathy conveys caring and concern, but does not convey shared distress.
A Bahá’í Perspective
The Baha’i Writings seem to suggest that religion must be the source of empathy:
Religion must be, he says, a source of unity and concord, of compassion and empathy. (Baha’u’llah, The Tablet to Mirza Abu’l-Fadl Concerning the Questions of Manakji Sahib, Provisional Translations, Tablet on Hinduism and Zoroastrianism – Cole)
Does that mean we can learn empathy through the Writings?
The concluding statement in a letter from the House of Justice to some parents, indicates they feel empathy:
With deep empathy for you as parents challenged with the onerous task of raising your children in a world beset with unprecedented problems and difficulties, the House of Justice assures you of its ardent prayers in the Holy Shrines on your behalf. (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Oct 28, Manner of Appealing to Youth)
So perhaps we can learn empathy by studying the Writings, and how the Central Figures modelled it.
In the Bahá’í World, we find an article in the section “Essays and Reviews”, which is a talk based on a chapter called ‘The Germination of Worlds’ that describes the Sixth Mystery in a book entitled “The Seven Mysteries of Life”, by Guy Murchie, in which he says:
The fourteenth factor of germination is the rise of the human spirit which must be swiftly, if invisibly, evolving — along with man’s more obvious material and mental progress — and must, Bahá’u’lláh tells us, soon unite all people in a common bond of empathy that will bring such harmony and peace as was never before known on Earth. (Guy Murchie, Baha’i World Volumes, Volume 16, p. 665)
Although this is not authoritative, it seems to suggest that empathy is a quality we can or will develop, and indeed that we must develop if the world is to know peace.
We’re encouraged to help each other by suffering with and for them:
With reference to your question as to whether individuals can help each other by accepting to suffer for each other’s sake. Surely such sacrifice for our fellow-humans can have helpful results. This law of sacrifice operates in our own lives, as well as in the lives of the Divine Manifestations. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 118)
Surely such sacrifice for our fellow-humans can have helpful results!
‘Abdu’l-Baha tells us to regard the sick with sympathy followed by action:
The sick one must . . . be regarded with sympathy and affection and treated until he is healed. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 433)
And to show sympathy to those souls deprived of great benefits due to excessive difficulty:
As to the souls who are born into this world radiant entities and who through excessive difficulty are deprived of great benefits and thus leave the world — they are worthy of all sympathy, for in reality this is worthy of regret. (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 542)
A friend of mine once said that people accuse her of not having any empathy, but when I questioned her further, I discovered that she used to run support groups for people who had the same physical ailment that she had. She was able to be empathetic with them, because she’d “walked a mile in those moccasins”! But she was only able to be sympathetic to those who’ve had different life experiences than she’s had.
To those like her, Shoghi Effendi said:
You should not consider yourself unfeeling because you see in this world agony the birth of a new and better world. This is just what the Bahá’ís should teach to others. However much pity and sympathy we may have for humanity, we nevertheless realize that people today are suffering for their own sins of omission and commission. We must help them to see this and to turn their thoughts and acts into the channels Divinely prescribed by Bahá’u’lláh. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 129)
Sympathy in this case also shows an action we are to take.
If we want to learn how to be more sympathetic, we’re to study ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s life:
He feels you should by all means show your husband the greatest love and sympathy; if we are ever in any doubts as to how we should conduct ourselves as Bahá’ís we should think of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and study His life and ask ourselves what would He have done, for He is our perfect example in every way. And you know how tender He was, and how His affection and kindness shone like sunlight on everyone. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 227)
His sympathetic heart was as wide as the universe:
When a Turkish man, living in Haifa, lost his position, he, his wife and children were in desperate need. They went to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for help and were naturally greatly aided. When the poor man became ill, again the Master stood ready to help. He provided a doctor, medicine and provisions to make him comfortable. When this man felt he was to die, he asked for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and called his children to him. ‘Here‘, he told the children, ‘is your father, who will take care of you when I am gone.’
One morning four small children arrived at the home of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and announced, ‘We want our father.’ The Master, hearing their voices, knew who they were. They shared their sorrow with Him—their own father had died. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá brought them in and gave them drink, sweets and cakes. He then went with them to their home. Their announcement had been premature—their father had merely fainted, but the next day he passed away. The Master arranged for the funeral and provided food, clothing and travel-tickets for the family to go to Turkey. His sympathetic heart was as wide as the universe. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 66)
Here’s how ‘Abdu’l-Baha showed sympathy:
One who sought the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá realized the father-like sympathy which is his. Speaking of his and others’ love for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá the reply was: “I know that you love me, I can see that it is so. I will pray for you that you may be firm and serve in the Cause, becoming a true servant to Bahá’u’lláh. Though I go away I will always be present with you all.” These words were spoken with the greatest loving sympathy and understanding of difficulties; during the moments of this little talk ‘Abdu’l-Bahá held and stroked the speaker’s hands, and at the end took his head and with a gentle touch drew it to him kissing the forehead of the young man, who felt that he had found a father and a friend. (Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 111-112)
- provided a doctor, medicine and provisions to make the sick comfortable
- took care of orphaned children
- shared the sorrow with others
- gave things to eat and drink
- arranged for funerals
- provided food, clothing and travel-tickets
- affirmed the love He saw showered on Him
- prayed for him
- told him what He was praying for
- reassured him of His presence
- understood his difficulties
- held and stroked his hand
- kissed his forehead
Here’s how ‘Abdu’l-Baha showed the difference between empathy and sympathy:
On the day I arrived at Haifa I was ill with a dysentery which I had picked up in the course of my travels. ‘Abdu’l-Baha sent His own physician to me, and visited me Himself. He said, “I would that I could take your illness upon Myself.” I have never forgotten this. I felt, I knew, that in making this remark ‘Abdu’l-Baha was not speaking in mere terms of sympathy. He meant just what He said. Such is the great love of the Kingdom, of which ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke so often and so much. This is a love that is difficult, almost impossible, for us to acquire — though we may seek to approximate its perfection. It is more than sympathy, more than empathy. It is sacrificial love. (Some Warm Memories of ‘Abdu’l-Baha — by Stanwood Cobb)
Although it was more than either sympathy or empathy, it seemed to combine the elements of both.
- sent His own physician
- visited him
- wanted to take the illness on for him
- demonstrated the love of the Kingdom
‘Abdu’l-Baha was so sympathetic, that he couldn’t understand how people could be indifferent to the wholesale slaughter of thousands, while being excited by the deaths of twenty:
So sensitive and sympathetic was the Master to human suffering that He admitted to surprise that others could be quite oblivious to it. In Paris, He expressed His feelings: ‘I have just been told that there has been a terrible accident in this country. A train has fallen into the river and at least twenty people have been killed. This is going to be a matter for discussion in the French Parliament today, and the Director of the State Railway will be called upon to speak. He will be cross-examined as to the condition of the railroad and as to what caused the accident, and there will be a heated argument. I am filled with wonder and surprise to notice what interest and excitement has been aroused throughout the whole country on account of the death of twenty people, while they remain cold and indifferent to the fact that thousands of Italians, Turks, and Arabs are killed in Tripoli! The horror of this wholesale slaughter has not disturbed the Government at all! Yet these unfortunate people are human beings too.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 68)
So what is better? Empathy? Sympathy?
I think the Bahá’í Faith also teaches compassion, which transcends them both.
One author suggests:
Compassion is the tie that binds every human being to each other and to the mystery of creation. It is the common thread of all religions, meditations, and community structures. Compassion does not acknowledge the artificial social, economic, and religious barriers we place between ourselves and others. It acknowledges the common cry of human longings, aspirations, and tragedies. When a reflex reaction causes us to help a stranger, with no motivation other than that person is in need, or maybe in peril of his life, our compassion is in action.
The dictionary defines compassion as:
a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
Let’s look at how ‘Abdu’l-Baha showed compassion:
He had left orders that none were to be turned away, but one who had twice vainly sought his presence, and was, through some oversight, prevented from seeing him, wrote a heartbreaking letter showing that he thought himself rebuffed. It was translated by the Persian interpreter. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at once put on his coat, and, turning towards the door, said, with an expression of unspeakable sadness, “A friend of mine has been martyred, and I am very grieved. I go out alone.” and he swept down the steps. One could then see how well the title of “Master” became him. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 109)
The demands on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s time were constant. The English Bahá’ís tried to organize the flow of those seeking interviews and instituted a system of official appointments. One day, a woman appeared at the door and asked if she could see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. When asked if she had an appointment, she admitted that she had not and was promptly told, “I am sorry but He is occupied now with most important people, and cannot be disturbed.” Sadly, the woman slowly turned away, but before she could reach the bottom of the steps, a messenger from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá rushed out and breathlessly said, “He wishes to see you, come back!” From the house came the powerful voice of the Master: “A heart has been hurt, hasten, hasten, bring her to Me.” (Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p.36)
Two days earlier, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had granted a final interview to Harriet Cline and Henrietta Wagner, who were to leave for California, the following day. They waited for their interview with many others until someone announced, “there will be no more interviews this morning.” The two women were crushed and sat there in shock at the thought of going home without seeing the Master one last time. But then came the Master’s melodious voice calling, “Mrs. Klein then Mrs. Wagner.” When Mrs. Klein entered ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s presence, He put an arm around her and said, “You are my daughter, you are my daughter. I have prayed for you many, many times.” Her tears poured out uncontrollably until she looked up into ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s eyes. His smile and happiness suddenly filled her and, she said, “a sense of great inner calmness took possession of my soul.” (Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 118)
From these stories we can see that He couldn’t bear to know that anyone’s heart had been hurt, and did everything in His power to soothe broken hearts.
As Bahá’ís we believe in the oneness of humanity, and this is the standard we need to attain:
Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Arabic Hidden Words 68)
When we walk with the same feet we’re being empathetic and we can’t help but be sympathetic and compassionate as well.
When we reach this standard, everyone will live in undisturbed peace and absolute composure!
If the learned and worldly-wise men of this age were to allow mankind to inhale the fragrance of fellowship and love, every understanding heart would apprehend the meaning of true liberty, and discover the secret of undisturbed peace and absolute composure. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 260)
Some people can be so bound up in the lives of others that they can eventually be overwhelmed by the negative feelings they take on from their relationships and encounters with other people. In those cases, they need to guard against depleting their forces and having breakdowns:
The Bahá’ís, in spite of their self-sacrificing desire to give the last drop of their strength to serving the Cause, must guard against utterly depleting their forces and having breakdowns. For this can sometimes do more harm than good, because they are so bound up in the lives of others. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 279)
They also need to take care of their health and build up their reserves:
If you take better care of your own health, and build up your reserves, it would certainly be better for you and for your work. Then your sensitive, yearning heart, although you may still often suffer for and with others, will be better able to withstand its trials, and you will not get so exhausted, which is certainly no asset to your work for the Cause. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 279)
So whether we’re showing empathy, sympathy or compassion, the key seems to be moderation.
What are your thoughts? Post your comments below!