I used the words ‘sympathy and empathy’ synonymously for a long time. My teachers used to say that there is a subtle difference, and mastering that subtlety between the words makes you a learned man. I did not bother myself with the advice because I neither had a dictionary and nor had I money to buy it. Neither Had I any desire to be a master of words. Once my father had given me some money to buy a dictionary but I spent that money to watch a few Bollywood movies, especially of actor Shahrukh Khan.
Luckily, the day after I spent whole money on a movie, my lecturer in my Bachelor's level taught us about empathy. Referring the word to the elements of stories or novels, he told us that when we identify ourselves with the character (protagonist) in a story or novel, then we establish our empathy. It helps us to know about the moods, psychology and role of the character. I got very happy with that professor and that boundless happiness resulted in a question, “Sir, If I identify myself with Shahrukh Khan as a character in a movie, is it empathy?” Irritated by the question, he said, “Go and ask with Shahrukh Khan. I am not teaching you the elements of movies but the elements of a story.”
Learning through Experience
With a view of irritating him once more, I shot another question at him, “Isn't a movie a visual representation of a story, sir?” The question made him so mad that he kicked me out of the classroom, “Get out; do not disturb me and other students who want to study seriously.”
I came out of the class, sat on the ground of Birendra Multiple Campus and really enjoyed the morning sunshine. I felt as if the sun was being empathetic to me. From that day onward, I never took any classes in Bachelor level but experienced the empathy of the sun. Learning through experiences began in my life but now it is obstructed due to western education system where I am forced to stay in the class. The empathy of my lecturer had set me free from the cage in Nepal but the sympathy of the professors here in Canada has caged me again.
After two days of the event, two of my friends ran away from home and went to Bumbai (Mumbai). Later on when they returned from Bumbai, I asked them about the fact. They told me that they went to Bumbai not to visit but to meet Shahrukha Khan out of empathy. This empathy made us laugh: we laughed and laughed for long time on the campus. Fortunately, I met one of the empathetic friends in Kathmandu recently and talked about the event after twenty-two years. The discussion took a serious turn. My friend told me, “Look TP! The greatest irony of human beings is that they express their empathy to the persons who do not need it as I did when I was young but they do not even utter a single word to those who need it, let alone sympathy.” He seemed to get rid of this irony.
This is how I had learnt about these words through experiences in my life. For me, it was not necessary to listen to any discourses from any professors in Canadian classroom but I was forced to. Therefore, I went to a class in early December morning with a heavy heart to listen to the discourse on sympathy and empathy. Despite heaviness of heart, my mind was eager to listen something about the words in social work context because I had only experiential and literary knowledge.
A tall professor with jolly face appeared in the class, opened the computer, logged into his email account and downloaded the years-long that read the difference between the words sympathy and empathy. Collected from the different books and online journals, he started his lecture on these two words. As he was lecturing, I started thinking of the Gita where Lord Krishna becomes empathetic to Arjun. Despite Arjun’s repeated and irrelevant questions, Krishna expresses his utmost empathy to take Arjun out of his despondency.
Empathy of Krishna makes Arjun to realize his true nature. Meanwhile, a friend called George nudged me and said, “Wow! How fantastic ideas! Exasperatingly I said, “Yeah! Good fantasy.”
George disturbed my thoughts and I started listening to the professor. He was saying the word sympathy refers to acknowledgment of others suffering to comfort them, but you do that just to gratify your ego. It is an ego-satisfaction. It is a feeling of pity. To have a pity over someone is to impose your ego. It does not help people in real life and clients in social field sector. What you need is empathy which refers to deeper feelings emerged out of love. To have empathy over someone is to help selflessly, without expectations of the fruits you get from people or clients.
Developing consciousness is important for empathy whereas man is in the grip of mind in case of sympathy. And remember you find these attitudes and feelings in different sectors and in human relationship such as academia, social field, classroom, different professions, friendship, family but always be empathetic everywhere which is my request to you.
Sarah who was sitting by me burst with a question, “If someone loses a mother and is forced to miss three classes but the professor provides less than fifty percentage marks in attendance, what will it express in academia: sympathy or empathy? The jolly face of professor turned red and his ears was burning and with this facial expression, he said, “We will discuss this question next week” and left the class.
Sarah looked at me for my response. I said her, “For the first time I am happy with you because today I experienced and saw how an experiential statement can collapse the whole bookish knowledge and discourse and how a Ph. D. holder fails to have empathy over the suffering of people and pupil. I continued, “You know Sarah, it reminded me of Karl Marx who states that ideology (discourse) is a false consciousness created by powerful to dominate the powerless. Someone from the class spoke, “Hey Til! Do not stick to classical Marxism. You know, Antinio Gramci said, “It is the same ideology that powerless can use against the powerful.”
Annoyed, George said, “Hey guys! Whatever you are talking about Marx and Gramsi is also a discourse.” I said goodbye to everyone and took a train. On the train, I started reflecting on the sentence of George. I thought that George was right because until and unless we go beyond words and perform our duty, we are simply dancing around the circumference of discourses and never reach the centre of an issue.
I remembered the Hindu Vedanta philosophy that mentions a finger pointing to the moon. Looking at the finger is a sympathy, and going beyond finger and looking at moon is empathy. When I was typing this piece of memoir, I was in a job where I had to write online report. When I returned home at midnight and was ready to sleep, I remembered a mistake I did in a report: “Empathy and sympathy issued to unit number 2509.”
I could not sleep and shared it with family. My son blurted out, “Dad, retaining professional duty is empathy to your profession but you entered sympathy into online report, now you are bound to lose your job.”
I could not sleep that night because of sympathy.
(Former lecturer at Patan Campus,
Paudel now lives in Canada)
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