em•pa•thy (ˈempəTHē) noun 1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another 2. the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions 3. the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it 4. the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this
sym•pa•thy (ˈsimpəTHē) noun 1. feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune 2. the formal expression of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune; condolences 3. understanding between people; common feeling 4. the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.
For two words to be so similar, I feel I have a much better handle on sympathy than it’s cousin, empathy. I often (but especially this past week) find myself wishing I were more empathetic, that I would have more compassion and sensitivity towards the feelings of others. Jesus seemed so good at this. I wonder if it just came natural to him? Like a part of the holy-perfect-package? Or did he struggle with it sometimes like I do? Or maybe his ability to discern the heart so clearly helped because he knew the root of the pain was often deeper than even the subject comprehended?
Being sympathetic seems to come easier because actual sorrow or hardship is the focus, like if you lose a loved one or even your job. The misfortune is tangible. But empathy, centered on understanding someone’s feelings, is where I can get disconnected along the way. I can relate to hardship, but sometimes I cannot relate to your feelings. Or perhaps on occasion the problem is that I cannot justify your feelings in response to a particular situation? In which case the root of my challenge is something entirely different.
Empathy goes a step deeper, it is the ability to imagine or project oneself into another person’s position and experience all the sensations involved in that position. But what if negative sensations experienced are self-inflicted? Am I to still share in your suffering? For an extreme example, but one that is real to me: if you are found guilty of a crime, then forced to suffer the consequences of that crime, and as a result you experience depression, am I to still find empathy or even sympathy for you? Surely prison could be classified as hardship or misfortune. Or can it?
But then do we add, “beyond one’s control,” to our definition? I find it much easier to have empathy for someone dealing with feelings forced upon them that they had no control over. Yet I would venture to say this is more seldom the case than any of us would like to admit. Perhaps I am over thinking this. (Okay definitely I am over thinking this.) What helps you find “the capacity” for understanding and vicariously experiencing the feelings and thoughts of another?