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SYMPATHY, EMPATHY, IDENTITY AND POV

I used to believe empathy was a more lofty reaction to another person’s troubles than sympathy. That was before I really sat down and thought about the two words and the meaning behind them.

The other day, something happened that prompted me to do so, and got totally confused. I’m still sorting it all out in fact, so jump in if you want to help. But meanwhile, here’s where I’m at on the subject.

Empathy is probably a less common reaction to someone else’s troubles, and it’s a more valuable one in terms of being a writer. But from the point of view of the original sufferer – the one whose troubles you’re empathizing with – empathy doesn’t really do them a lot of good!

This was kind of a shock to me and I blame sci-fi. Because as we all know, in sci-fi, an Empath doesn’t just feel the other person’s pain. They can lessen it, because most sci-fi Empaths take that pain into themselves. So it’s not just that they experience it with the original sufferer, they experience it for them. Very cool. Made me value empathy above sympathy. Made me want to be an Empath, and proud to be empathetic.

But back here on planet Earth, it doesn’t really make that much difference to the original sufferer whether I’m empathizing with them or just sympathizing with them. In fact, sympathizing is probably more generous!

Why? Because when you give sympathy, you are purely caring about the other person’s pain. “I feel so bad for you because you’re in pain.”

With empathy, you actually feel the other person’s pain yourself. So in a way, it’s all about you . (This is where you should jump in and help me with my thought process, because this is the point where I have managed to totally confuse myself.)

Here’s what happened that made me really think about these concepts. A co-worker’s father passed away, and I felt just terrible for the son, a guy I don’t know too well but who seems awfully nice. Then my thoughts wandered to my own father, and I confronted the truth that we all occasionally confront – that I would lose him one day, and how much I’d miss him. How unbearable that feeling would be.

Then I felt mildly guilty, because suddenly this poor co-worker’s tragedy had become “all about Kate.” Even though I still felt sorry for him, I had begun feeling awful for myself too!

So what went on there? Was that true empathy? Probably not. It was something a little more intellectual – I identified with him. That isn’t a bad thing. It’s something we all do. And writers, among other persons, tend to go with those thoughts when they pop into our heads, because our subconscious can then file it all away and use it later. That’s why, when I identify with the poor guy’s situation, I allow myself to go down that road – to feel what he’s feeling.

And when I get to a scene in a book where a character loses a loved one, I go down that road again, and it’s very useful. I use all of the loss in my own life – and I’ve had some terribly unexpected and heartbreaking ones – and I can also use all of the emotions I’ve re-experienced from time to time through the process of empathy.

Or something like that.

Meanwhile, when my character experiences a loss, if I can write it well from his or her point of view (POV), then you’ll at least sympathize with him or her. And if I write it really well, you’ll empathize with the character. His pain will be your pain.

So as a wannabe Empath, I want to take your pain away. But as a writer, I want to make you experience someone else’s pain!

No wonder I’m confused.

BTYL, Kate

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