This is the time we ask God to be sympathetic to us, to be there for us, and to bless us with a good year. He is an empathetic God who acts with sympathy and we acknowledge that in the “13 Attributes of Mercy” said daily in the Selichot. And just as God is merciful – “Mah Hu Rachum” we are instructed to be the same – “Af Atah Rachum.”
Too often, though, we recite much of our prayers by rote.
How many of us actually know the difference between sympathy and empathy?
How many people are actually in touch with their feelings about others?
How many individuals are in touch with their own feelings?
I ask these questions not rhetorically but from a true desire to understand human pathos. To what degree do we truly understand and have sensitivity about others and through that process understand ourselves? To what degree do we relate to others and feel for them?
In brief, sympathy is the ability to feel sorrow or pity for someone else’s tribulations. It involves caring and compassion – even a desire to assist others in their trying times. Feeling sympathy means you care but do not share or experience the same feelings as the person you sympathize with.
Empathy, on the other hand, indicates having a shared emotional experience. It is essentially the equivalent of identifying with another individual’s feelings and emotional reactions. The pain or joy of that person is yours, exactly as if you share the same precise emotional experience.
Empathy is the ability to feel with another person. It is sometimes referred to as a character attribute, a positive sense of identifying with your fellow human in a deeply psychologically and expressively linked fashion. You feel what they feel. Sympathy is being understanding, considerate – but without the shared reaction. You feel for the other person rather than with them.
We read the news and we sometimes feel a pang of pain for the agony of others. The murderous brutality of al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS causes us to feel compassion and concern for their victims, but it is mostly fleeting. During the recent Gaza conflict, by contrast, many of us felt more than just a passing spasm of sympathy. We felt true fear and dread. This difference is likely due to how related we feel and to the degree to which we identify with others.
It is easier to sympathize with all people who are in peril but we feel special empathy when members of our own family or group are being terrorized.
Some people never get past sympathy. But if you cannot be empathetic to others, at least you can be sympathetic. Being in touch with feelings about others imparts a certain sense of humanity in our lives. Not all of us have to feel a kinship with all humankind. Sympathetic feelings about others may not rise to the level of being a character attribute like empathy but sympathy certainly is part of a precious emotional reaction and comes under the concept of merciful.
There are times, however, when some of us do not even acknowledge our own emotions; or worse, do not acknowledge we even have feelings; or worse still, have no compassionate feelings about others.
Research indicates that children who display certain disruptive behavior disorders –temper, arguing, disobedience, hostility – suffer from an inability to empathize with others. They are emotionally dysfunctional. Without a sense of empathy, positive helping behavior is unlikely to develop. In fact, there are several subtypes of people who suffer from empathy dysfunction. Some of these un-empathetic individuals may be suffering from severe psychopathology, some from less severe mental illness, and some from physical illness. In a number of cases there may even be measurable differences in the brain structure, the amygdale, that is correlated with emotional dysfunction.