Like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer, I contemplate the messages on greeting cards quite often. While wandering around Trader Joe’s one day in search of a counterculture “Thank You” card, I happened upon a selection that fell under the umbrella category of “sympathy.” My initial reaction to these droopy carnation-bearing cards was one of fear. If I read them, I would most definitely induce a state of complete misery. And not the Maroon 5 kind.
As a self-proclaimed “good listener,” I thoroughly enjoy shutting my one mouth, and focusing my two ears on someone else. What began as common courtesy has developed into a genuine care of mine. I like knowing “what’s up” and “what’s wrong.” No, I don’t have an obscenely large ego. And no, I don’t think I’m some kind of philanthropist. I just like my ears.
After I remembered what it means to actually listen to someone, in both a physical and mental capacity, I repeatedly found myself at odds with what the world says is the go-to feeling for listeners: sympathy.
“My deepest condolences.” “With great sympathy.” “I know what that’s like.” “It’s going to be alright. Trust me.” “Oh, that sucks.” “I’m sorry.”
Often clumped together as expressions of “sympathy,” these phrases are exceedingly problematic. We hide behind these words with the hope that what we say is sufficient enough to put someone at ease for the time being, without acknowledging what we can gain from our own ignorance to their emotional state. A simple: “I honestly can’t imagine what that’s like” can make a world of difference.
We live under the impression that we believe in sympathy. We think it’s helpful when we give it. And we don’t question receiving it.
But as I reflect on the instances in which I’ve offered my sympathies to someone else, I’ve realized that I can’t help but experience a run-in with sympathy’s triplet siblings: empathy and apathy.
It’s hard to be sympathetic without being empathetic. And it’s easy to be apathetic when being sympathetic would take up too much time.
I find it challenging to offer my condolences to someone without adding an “I know what that’s like” or an “I understand.” Let’s be real. No one has a 100 percent situation-alignment rate with anyone else. If we all had “been there,” we wouldn’t need to reach outside of ourselves for an explanation. Sympathy isn’t always enough.
In “La Vie Boheme,” an iconic musical number in the rock opera “RENT,” the characters take a stand for the neglected triplet sibling. They affirm their need for emotional diversity, when they jump atop tables and sing their hearts out “to apathy, to entropy, to empathy, ecstasy!”
Just this week, Queen Elizabeth II traveled to Ireland and offered her condolences to the Irish people for the massacre that took place nearly a century ago. “To all those who have suffered as a consequence of our troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy.”
The Queen’s actions illuminate how people in power use sympathy as a way of establishing a moral stance. It appears gets the job done, but is sympathy enough to cover the pain of 100 years?
Instead of approaching sympathy, empathy and apathy with a “one of these things is not like the other” mentality, we can make the choice to find a balance between them all. I, for one, can’t stand extended apathy, but I’ve been reminded on many occasions that indifference is sometimes what people need, regardless of how it makes me feel.
When sympathy doesn’t make the cut, and apathy is far too cold, we must turn to empathy for guidance. What I consider to be the most effective of the three, empathy establishes a two-way street of growth between the giver and receiver. When we choose to be empathetic, not only do we get to help someone else, we also help ourselves see how much we’ve learned and changed from our experiences.
In 2006, when he was still a young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama urged the American people to find solace in empathy. “You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability…to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us. When you think like this, it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”
If we believe in balancing the “thy’s,” we can finally let go of our current understandings of what is “supposed” to be done and make things happen on our own. It’s about time we had an emotional revolution.
MAYA MAKKER didn’t appreciate Zooey Deschanel’s behavior in 500 Days of Summer. Sorry, I’m not sorry. Agree with her at email@example.com.