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Empathy is overrated

This title isn’t intended to be provocative. Instead, it is meant to be an honest indictment of what I deem to be an unrealistic belief. Defining empathy as the literal feeling of what another is feeling, its pros and cons are immediately clear. For starters, empathy is likelier to be false and/or flawed than sympathy, given that no one person is exactly like another, and thereby some nuance of emotion may well be missed. Second, the pitfalls of empathy are well known, in that fully sharing a burden may be admirable but could result in similarly deleterious effects as having that burden oneself, potentially duplicating its ramifications.

Sympathy is somewhat more practical, while compassion may be the optimal quality to aim for, and here’s why: Being able to comprehend why someone else is feeling a certain way, or what their emotional and/or mental state is, already is more probable than feeling inherently similar immediately upon understanding. But compassion implies action of some sort following the achievement of sympathy, hence its featuring in so many religions, which all recognize that understanding without action is hardly virtuous.

Especially during the uniquely trying times of the COVID-19 pandemic, I frankly would not have been able to function were it not for staying in my traditional lane of sympathy and hopefully at times compassion. Empathy does not come naturally to me, and moreover, I am quite suspicious of it given how far removed from many people’s lived experiences I am (candidly, I consider myself one of the most fortunate people I’ve ever met, in nearly every way, which disqualifies me from having walked in so many others’ shoes). But sympathy (and again, hopefully, compassion) also were much more sustainable to practice for the unending months of the pandemic, and what is sure to be its frustratingly drawn-out conclusion.

Much like if you truly love someone, you tell them even unwelcome truths in as gentle a fashion as possible, one should not overstretch into something less than fully genuine or even practical. Empathy is overrated; aim for sympathy as a rule, strive for compassion as an ideal.

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