Life lessons: Sympathy vs. empathy
And now, a blog post of a more personal nature…
As a person with Asperger’s syndrome, I’ve been told that one of my main problems was with empathy, or rather my lack of it. And if you’re just a tiny bit like me, there’s a high chance you’ve heard that nonsense too.
It’s a common misconception, even on some planes of the spectrum.
As a person with Asperger’s, or maybe just as a human being, I’ve experienced more than my fair share of bullying, exclusion and the like. Of being outcast because I was being perceived as strange. Along the way becoming strange because I was excluded. Intense feelings of isolation and detachment, yet also a strong urge and need to hang on and onto, to feel connected.
This is a very distinct but ultimately diffuse emotion; it is so hard-hitting that it renders you incapable of describing it sufficiently – perhaps because it is all too real and all too much, and you have to distance yourself from it to stay alive and somewhat sane.
But basically, absence of proof is not necessarily proof of absence.
That I don’t wear my emotions on the surface, making them instantly recognizable for all to see and easily perceive and analyze, does not mean that I don’t experience these feelings.
In other words, I could be fragile. I could even, when all is at its worst, be insecure of the empathy of others and keep mine hidden, out of a basic – albeit silly and illogical, but very real and direct – fear and dread.
Sympathy is fundamentally agreeing. It’s that simple. Most things in life are not, but this is. At its core, you feel sympathy when situations progress the way you’d like or expect them to.
To phrase it quite harshly, but still essentially truistic, if people have made stupid, unreflected or impulsive choices, sometimes sympathy can be too much to expect. You can of course try to sympathize. Perhaps you even should at least try at first, perhaps each and every time.
But the main thing is, the important lesson is to never despair. If sympathy is not a viable option, choose the alternative:
In contrast, empathy is more free-flowing and natural. Unhindered. Pure.
If one were so inclined, s/he could even attach religious adjectives to the word. Though I’m usually not a fan of such unfounded and ungrounded gravitas, there’s perhaps a poetic irony (or divine intervention?) in me having these thoughts right now, around the holiest of holiest (and more importantly, compassionate) times of Easter.
Empathy can thus be said to be the instance when you recognize an emotion in another person, and when you sympathize with that emotion, not the reasons or the cause behind it. Maybe you know the emotion, perhaps you’ve felt it yourself; sometimes it’s just an unexplainable, but true and positive instinct.
It took me some time to figure this out. And then, someday, it was clear to me. I have probably pondered this on and off in the back of my mind throughout the years.
I couldn’t understand that if I was supposed to be so insensitive – or slightly more positively said, detached from, or not fully in control of my feelings – then why did I feel so bad from time to time? That’s a profound lack of logic, there. Or maybe a lack of profound logic.
But then I changed the premise – or it changed itself, and it all fit beautifully. It’s sometimes too much to ask me to sympathize with a lot of the choices, the developments, the basic future history of this increasingly and stupefyingly alienating and sadly divisive world of today. But I can lament these digressions and setbacks, I can feel sad, I can hope, wish and work for better things, options and times. I can empathize.
I realize that this sounds confrontational to some ears, and I admit that it is more or less a somewhat self-contradicting to-the-point and blunt statement.
So, does this distinction make me pedantic? Perhaps yes, it does, just slightly (but that’s maybe just a happy by-product of my Asperger’s).
But none the less caring. And that’s comforting. Well, at least it is to me.
And that’s okay. I can’t be there for other people, be supportive and dependable, loyal and encouraging to others, if I don’t maintain and secure my own happiness. That’s the well-spring that mustn’t dry out if I want to be at my most best, my most humane, to my fellow humans. And I want to.
Ironically, that means taking time off, taking temporary exiles to either think or not-think. Whatever the situation calls for.
I won’t claim these as unique revelations – but universal advice can bear repetition. Many people have stated these truths before me, some in song. Here’s Manic Street Preachers and their 1994 b-side from the Life Becoming a Landslide EP, the dichotomy of the aptly named ”Comfort Comes” (a heavier track) and “Solitude Sometimes Is”, from the more calm and blissful 2004 album Lifeblood: