Empathy and sympathy overlap, but I will use “sympathy” here to mean “blind compassion,” or feeling something that you shouldn’t be feeling in the first place, just because you weren’t even a part of the circumstances or situation that affected the party in suffering, but by golly, you feel bad for some reason!
Good old fashioned pity.
Sympathy in that manner is the disease of liberalism; for example, “We feel bad that we see those homeless people on the street, and we can’t do anything about it directly, but let’s toss a few bucks their way so that we don’t have to feel guilty about how much more well-fed and better off we are than they are anymore.”
This is the pity that Nietzsche once talked about that makes people feel good about themselves. It’s the pity that fuels liberalism.
[T]he intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
[T]he fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, esp. in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.
It doesn’t solve problems, it merely creates the illusion that it does, as if the problem itself only existed in the mind. It’s a process of solipsism, as if it were just an issue of bad feelings that needed to go away, like a little bedtime tummyache.
It only perpetuates the inability to detach and analyze the hows and whys of the emotion we’re feeling, and what we can do to effectively handle the issue that stirs up these kinds of feelings.
I like to think of being “empathetic” as being a detached understanding of the how and why behind the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others without the solipsistic pretenses of suffering in their exact situation; for example, “Those homeless people seem to be living a tough life.”
“It must really suck to be dirty, wear ragged clothes while trying to stay warm and dry. We could try to help them out by giving them some money (and feel better about ourselves for doing so), but they probably ended up that way because of the circumstances they were born into, and the decisions they made early in life, and there’s nothing I can do right then and there to fix that. We’d only be prolonging his own unfortunate suffering, that would be very selfish of us to do that.”
Depending on who you are, empathy in this sense might seem harsh. I can empathize.
(Un)fortunately, this is the only way to help alleviate all of our collective suffering: by not letting our emotions get in our way so that we can help ourselves help others more effectively and with better prejudice. It makes little sense to have a rationale guided by emotion, compared with emotions guided by rationality. The former is a very infantile mind; the latter is mature.
To those who can’t help but sympathize with every victim of everything: Stop feeling, and start thinking about your feelings. Why do you suddenly care that a bunch of people you never knew died in Haiti, or died starving in Africa today, and what’s it going to change if you do care? It’s too easy to play the generous, benevolent type when you have money to throw at starving, downtrodden people.
If you want to fix problems to end suffering in the world, why not start with yourself?
To quote Mohandas Gandhi (in this tired old cliche): “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” It rings true, time and time again.
It probably seems contradictory and solipsistic, too, to not want to help someone! How arrogant, right?
It seems more arrogant to want to help out a homeless stranger when you’ve got your own share of issues to worry about, like a family who you need to feed and take care of, or a country that’s being inundated by people who don’t even care about the place. We shouldn’t squander our emotional energy on things that won’t come to fruition for us, or even on things that could possibly kill us.