Which to Choose: Sympathy, Empathy or Compassion?
Which should we choose Sympathy, Empathy, or Compassion?
All my life when something terrible or tragic happened to someone I can remember hearing things like “Why don’t you show some sympathy, or can’t you be a little bit more empathetic?” Most often I can remember these terms being used in movies or on television shows.
I know that pop culture is not a stable place to get my basis for morality, but I think it is important to question this source. We get fed these things, and these ways that we should act from the media but often they are wrong. We are told that we should feel bad when other people feel bad, or that we should feel bad for someone when they have less.
The following three sections are examples of anecdotes from my life that I would like to share to illustrate the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.
One blatant example of these ideas that I see all of the time in the area I live is that of abject poverty. Most people hurriedly walk away from the homeless on the street feeling some form of sympathy or pity for them. Pity is the worst emotion that we can have for someone like that.
First, it implies a level of emotional disconnect. “I don’t understand the street people, so instead of taking the time to understand them as a human, I will just feel bad for them.”
Secondly, there is a level of entitlement or denial. We are far less different from those people then we are the same. That is to say; we are more like those people then we are different.
Pity is a way that we can separate ourselves from these “other” people. They become a group and dehumanization can easily follow.
Another illustration of these concepts that strikes close to home for me has to do with my mother and her keen sense of empathy. I can remember my mother saying things to me like “I’m sorry” when something was not going well in my life. I would ask, “what are you sorry about?” and she would reply “I don’t like seeing you struggle, so I just feel bad.”
For a long time, this was my model for “caring” about someone else. When someone that I had a connection with experienced loss in their life, I would “feel bad for them.” I would attempt to bear their burden of suffering along with them.
I would mentally jump in the very foxhole with them that was taking fire. Reflecting on this, it is not the wisest choice. When we drop in that emotional pit, now two people are suffering.
Empathy is a step in the right direction, but it is merely the taking on of that person’s suffering. Empathy does not imply doing anything about it or having any understanding of the causes of their pain and suffering.
The last example has to do with compassion. This notion is an active practice that recognizes suffering and the ability to do something about it. My stepfather was a perfect example of a compassionate person.
He would always listen intently to what you had to say. You could tell that he was engaged in the conversation and that he felt to some degree what you did. Although being involved, he would never let the negative emotions overrun him.
He would use them as a guide to better approach the situation and then leave them like tools in a box after the job was done. Based on this approach he would suggest ways in which to improve upon what you were doing. He would always do it in such a way to emphasize that what he was saying was merely a suggestion.
He also had a way of looking on the bright side. He was very familiar and oriented with both the strong phenomena of cause and effect, along with the polar nature of reality (good and evil). He did not deny adverse outcomes or undesirable situations.
He did choose to focus on what he and the people around him could control. He never complained and never spoke poorly about anyone that I can remember. His actions, in my opinion, illustrate true compassion, it is loving awareness to the fullest of its possible manifestation.
Buddhism and Compassion
Buddhism takes an excellent approach to compassion. We are taught that enlightenment comes from both wisdom and compassion. That is the right understanding of the origins and characteristics of suffering and then the application of compassion.
In this sense, there is no pity. There is empathy, but it is supported by understanding. It is an active approach toward suffering, and it’s elimination in the world. The Dalai Lama sums it up eloquently in the following passage:
“According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It’s not passive -- it’s not empathy alone -- but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and loving kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is loving kindness).”  Pg. 49
Now, why am I so prone to focus on topics like this? I realized some time back, about six years ago that I was not happy with my life. I had no idea what to do about it.
I was driven to solve this pain and suffering. It was when I stumbled upon the notion of compassion and gratitude that things began to change in my life.
However, it was not until I saw a Buddhist Monk provide a lecture that I truly understood the difference between sympathy and compassion. What I can now see that compassion is a way of taking an active approach toward the understanding and eventual dissipation of the pain and suffering of at first ourselves, and then others.
If we cultivate the seed of mindfulness, then we gain access to choose how we respond to specific outcomes. By working on ourselves and realizing that most of our pain can be dissipated by mindfulness and compassion, we take a step forward.
This action may be a single step on a very long journey, but we must realize our emotions and then treat ourselves as someone for whom we care. It is only then that we can take action to start to improve our state of being.
Once we get to a particular place within ourselves, we can start to focus on the outside world. We must understand the true network nature of reality to come into accordance with things. That is to say that what we do, impacts others and what others do has the ability to affect us.
We must also realize that good and evil are two sides of the same coin. This discovery allows for acceptance. This acceptance allows for the spawning of action. The basis of this action is from compassion and caring for our fellow human beings through the desire to reduce suffering.
Finally, like my stepfather once did, we must both treat all other people like they matter (because they do) and we must listen to understand and not to respond. If we focus on the individual, it is easy to find the human connection from where love can spawn.
It is when we act from a place of ego, trying to show how much we know, or look at people as a group that we become blinded to the true nature of reality. This illusion is again, where the practice of mindfulness comes into play, allowing us to lift the veil and to act in a way that is aligned with our most true inner being.
 D. L. X. Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho and T. Jinpa, The Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings. Simon and Schuster, 2005.