Sympathy or Empathy?

I don’t know what it feels like to watch your child starve. Approximately 1,000,000 adults in central and western Africa this year will experience this very thing. Hopelessness seems like an appropriate word. Perhaps grief and heartbreak? How about rage or anger? Fear maybe? I don’t know.

I look inside myself and I feel angry and outrage, that much is clear. We live in the 21st century we are fighting wars, worrying about the economy, and allowing situations like this are allowed to exist. We are after all a sentient race, and religious & philosophical arguments aside, we are the masters of our own destiny. Our world’s problems are our responsibility.

I feel sorrow too – that there are people will have to endure such cruel circumstances. I can hope that perhaps things this year won’t be so bad – that more people are spared this horror and that perhaps we as a race will make the effort needed to ensure that these miserable circumstance is addressed in a more meaningful way. I can certainly feel compassion for trauma and loss; I can commiserate with someone in a difficult situation I can even share their sorrow – sympathy is easy and something that I feel all the time, but I cannot feel their pain with them because empathy largely outside of my emotional intelligence.

No matter how many moving images I see off starving children and desperate parents. I don’t know what it is to loose a child, or to be unable to feed one. I don’t know what it feels like to look into a child’s eyes and know that I am unable to help. I can’t imagine what it is that I would feel. I can be happy for someone, or my heart can break for them; at the injustice they are going through, their loss. But ultimately I am incapable of feeling with them. As I understand it, empathy is the ability to take on the mantle of another’s emotions, to clothe your self in their emotional world and that is something that I all too often find myself utterly incapable of.

It took a long time for me to realise the difference, as I suspect it does for most Aspies. It is not an easy thing to admit either, but it is all too often a defining part of Aspergers Syndrome. The word heartless is sometimes thrown around, I have even heard Aspies described as Sociopaths, but the truth is much simpler, for the autistic mind, emotions are overwhelming; the ability to cope with and share the emotions of others is a difficult neurological proposition.

Emotion is a complicated phenomenon and neurologically it is still very poorly understood. I think it is fair to say that among the general population there are varying degrees of Empathy and Sympathy tempered and honed by experiences and upbringing and naturally some are better or worse than others in coping with these emotions. Perhaps the defining thing about Empathy though, is that it is a Social Emotion – one very highly attuned to relating to those around you; after all people are highly social creatures and the benefits of relating to one another in this way is obvious.

It is an easy to see sympathy and empathy as two sides of the same coin, and for most people I suspect they are interchangeable. The fundamental problem with the autistic mind, that coin is often double sided – sympathy every time. Perhaps on occasion though, this isn’t such a bad thing. It does occasionally allow for a clearer perspective, albeit often a brutally honest one.