sympathy versus empathy

One of our English Parliamentarians, Tessa Jowell, has been ‘battling’ a brain tumour for the last year or so. It is a peculiarity that we use the term ‘battle’ for something which implies brute force. Do we battle broken legs or arthritis or kidney failure? No, we deal with them, we address them, we treat them, we examine the causes. The word ‘battle’ is part of the fear-based campaign by the pharmaceutical industry to make sure we buy expensive medication and get bombarded by radiation rather than look for natural remedies. Cancer did not just come out of the blue, it came because we provided unwittingly or otherwise the conditions for it. <Blinding inspiration here> – Why not change the conditions and perhaps the enthusiastic growth of cells aka cancer will slow down.

I write about this topic because at 08.55 am today I heard the last segment of BBC Radio Four’s ‘Today’ discussion of people who are too embarrassed to talk to a person with cancer. Great harm can be done, so we learn, by some unthinking friend or relative saying “oh I know someone who had the same cancer, and they died”. Thanks for the information. I’m sure it makes people feel better. How’s that for  programming. Damage can also be done by not saying anything at all because people will think you don’t care. Do not repeat old wives tales such as “drink plenty of water and it will flash it away!”

Even worse is to say “have a positive attitude and you will get through it”. Of all the stupid and bland things to say this about takes the biscuit. It may be implying that if you get away from your normal negative attitude you will overcome this nonsense. Cancer is nobody’s fault, it is an opportunistic condition, sometimes genetic but mostly I suspect environmental.

The sufferer was saying ‘don’t sympathise just empathise’. I think it’s worth looking at this distinction a little bit more. Sympathy is thinking oh I’m terribly sorry, how I feel for you, how I pity you in your condition. Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of the other person. We have a big big problem here. Most people have not dealt with the matter of death never mind life after death and they are simply not up to the job of being objective. In other words, hearing about a life challenging event makes them scared so how in heaven’s name are you supposed to be supportive when you’re quaking in your boots?

I’ve been talking about a physical condition, cancer, but what about mental conditions when people want to say something but it doesn’t come out in the right way, or they have downs syndrome, or some condition that causes aberrant behaviour?  It is no help if you speak slowly and clearly, or do the now infamous ‘does he take tea?’ syndrome. Why not speak normally, look at the person directly, and remember that body language speaks as loudly as words if not more so. In such cases, your own biases will pop up whether you like it or not so it is good long-term homework to clean up your own attitudes, for example that people who cannot speak without a stammer are somehow less intelligent. No one knows what is going on underneath the surface.

Also with any type of person, why not tell a story to them. It’s very good to establish common ground and if they don’t appear to understand they appreciate the effort. Tell them what you’ve been doing today but of course don’t mention mountain climbing to a paraplegic in other words a modicum of tact is quite a good thing. When there is a group of you, always include a person by looking at them from time to time even if they don’t look as if they’re responding they are listening to you in some way.

Thinking about empathy for a bit, if you are lucky enough to be on the same wavelength as the person who is afflicted, you don’t need to say anything. Whereas sympathy can lead to inappropriate closeness or distancing, empathy when coupled with compassion will look after that problem very nicely. You will be at the optimum distance to make the biggest positive effect. You do not have to think about it.

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