Recently my boss spoke to me about the need for empathy in the workplace. Empathy is described as the capacity to understand another's situation or circumstance, commonly described in the phrase, "putting yourself in another person's shoes".
This led me on an interesting path of thought, where I began to consider the importance of empathy in life, if there indeed was any at all. I asked the question: what good is empathy alone? To merely know another's suffering or joy? To understand it on a purely cognitive level? So my mind drifted onto sympathy.
Empathy and sympathy are quite similar and often mistaken for the same concept but have a key difference. Sympathy is described as the act of feeling what another feels, to quote another popular phrase, "walking a mile in another person's shoes".
So my question became this: what good is it to know another's situation or circumstance on a purely cognitive level, that is, to be "aware" of their circumstance alone?
The rational dentist
There is a really interesting (I would say also fun) thought experiment titled "The Rational Dentist", in which the idea is posed that because I can never truly know another's sensations, both physically and otherwise, that there is no reason to suppose that they have any at all, or that they even feel, or are even conscious (it's a tough one that one, I recommend giving it a crack).
Essentially the argument is that if I ever do succeed to "feel" another's pain, then all I have done is made that my pain, because if I am feeling it, then it is no longer their pain, it is mine, the two experiences may be similar, but they are not the same.
The dentist uses this as justification for not needing to use pain killers to work on his patients.
I know what you are thinking, if he doesn't use pain killers then his clients will suffer pain, and that pain will be so great it will impede the dentist, but they thought of this. The reply is that the utilisation of pain killers helps the dentist do his job; it is a purely mechanical decision, like turning on the lights. In the dentist's mind it only makes his job easier, it doesn't matter if it coincidentally helps the patient too.
Troubling no, the idea that we have no reason to think that another human being has any understanding or feeling, the idea that they are purely reaction based entities that differ little from a machine.
But then I had a thought... the dentist had it all wrong.
Oh yes, silly dentist!
It isn't enough to merely understand another's situation, another's pain or joy. This means things happening to others will only ever matter to you in the material way they affect you! In other words it won't matter at all.
To know another's suffering is knowledge, to bear it, love
This is why empathy is empty, it alone is not enough. There needs to be sympathy, an understanding and appreciation, not for their pain, but an understanding that their suffering is my suffering: when my brother is weak, I too am weak.
It is this understanding and willingness to bear the burden of another that leads to action, because although burdened by their pain, the load is now lighter for my brother. So now together, with both empathy and sympathy, with this understanding mentally and emotionally, we can begin to act.
Action which is meaningful can only come from this place of dual empathy and sympathy, anything else is merely transactional and hollow. But true love, with depth and strength comes out of sharing not success, but failure, not joy, but pain.
This empathy and sympathy create an investment in the other, it creates a condition of care for my brother, and out of that care, out of knowing why I need to help, meaningful action, with purpose and love is born.
The call to action lies not in our knowledge that the world is in pain, but that suffering is lessened not solely by its distant extinction, but by its dissipation among those who would bear it together, and in the relationship of that burden, is born the new and beautiful joy which will replace it.
Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.
- Galatians chapter 6, verse 2
Trent Hohaia is a graduate from Te Whare Wananga o Waikato with a Bachelors degree in Tikanga Maori and Sociology. Fond of embellishments and sometimes outright lies, Trent is in love with his people, and is on a journey of restoration and development for Maori in Aotearoa..
Trent Hohaia's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/trent-hohaia.html