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Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Problem with Sympathy

Fr. Meletios Webber gave a talk in our parish a few years ago (I tried getting an annual conference on addictions in the Church, but soon realized that people who like the concept aren't necessarily going to bother to show up) in which he stated rather directly that sympathy is one of the worst emotions we can show another human being.  Most of the people who attended were shocked he would say such a thing.

Why did he say that?  Well, his reasons were clear, sympathy and pity are not the same as empathy.  Empathy is when you actually relate to the suffering someone is going through because you yourself have gone through it.  Pity is a condescending act, in a way demeaning the humanity of the other.  They are less than.

What makes sympathy worse is that it acknowledges that the other person has a right to feel sorry for themselves.  The encouragement of self-pity is more deadly than a gunshot wound: by pitying one's self, one is no longer able to do anything else.  Self-pity means that one has acknowledged that there is no hope.  For example, we do not pity a man in pain if his pain is from too hard of a workout in the gym, but if the same pain is from fibromyalgia, they we ooze sympathy because there is hopelessness behind the pain.

Pain that has no meaning brings about sympathy from those who have no meaningless pain.

What's more, self-pity engendered by sympathy leads to a shut-down of any efforts to get one out of one's pain.  It is an insurmountable roadblock to growth. If you feel sorry for yourself, you can't get up and do something about your situation.

So, we can paralyze people by showing them sympathy.

This is why 12 Step groups are so effective: the people involved have NO sympathy.  They have empathy.  They know what the newcomer feels like the moment he opens the door because everyone there has experienced it.

Jesus Christ Himself has empathy for our situation as fallen humans because He experienced it.  This is one of the most powerful aspects of the Incarnation.  He does not pity us, nor does He sympathize with our plight.  He knows our suffering and points a way out, which is Him.

This empathetic strain in Christianity and the 12 Steps is the reason that those who honestly follow both of these paths find their way out of meaningless suffering.  Notice that I did not say 'out of suffering,' because there is no way in this life to escape suffering.  Suffering is the beginning of existence, and points the way towards the fullness of life.

But, we are not meant to sit in our suffering and stew in our misery.

Empathy says, 'Yes, I was there where you are and I know how much it hurts.  Follow me and I will show you how I got out.'

Sympathy says, 'You poor thing.  Here's a box of tissues.'

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