Sympathy vs Empathy

Oh the lazy days of summer are here! When work is done there’s so much daylight you can close your eyes in the bright sun and feel the warmth reaching down into your bones bathing away the rancor and rhetoric of the day. You can relax into memory…..

It is a spring day in the second grade classroom of an old brick school building with many tall windows. The windows are so tall that the teacher needs a long pole with a hook to pull down shades or open the top half of the windows. A little girl with a wan face, hazel eyes and a straight bob haircut, an Alice hairband firmly in place to keep the hair out of her eyes, is bent over her wooden desk working her pencil over the paper with pale blue lines, two solid lines with a dashed line in the middle. She is a quiet girl who appears a bit separate from the others even when they are all working. She doesn’t say much, she doesn’t like to call attention to herself. She is, however, always watching, always thinking. Sometimes she gets lost in her thoughts and can’t remember how to spell the simple words she needs to write. Today she keeps her eyes down on her paper.
Today, she is thinking, is a day she will walk home on her own. Her mother will not be waiting outside the school. Her mother, a tall darkhaired woman with a stern face and a straight back posture, is older than a lot of the other mothers and the little girl knows Mom keeps to herself too. The little girl worries about this but she hasn’t quite put it all together yet. Her mother is worried about how sick and unhappy her father is. The little girl only knows the merriment he brings into the house when he is at home has stopped. He gets angry instead and then she and her sister and her mother stay very quiet.
Now she is thinking about the playground. That comes next in the school day. The other girls, who know each other from their neighborhood, not the one the little girl lives in, they will cluster together playing and talking while she hangs back on the fringes. The very pretty girl with the bouncy hair seems like fun but the little girl doesn’t approach her because she had made a mistake, she knows that now. Already at the edge of existence in this school world she stays away from others who are also different, the awkward ones. She longs to be the one who the teacher scoops up and hugs to herself, like the beautiful blond boy who the teacher swings in her arms until it seems he would fly out one of the tall windows like Peter Pan; his name is even Peter. But just yesterday, while they were working on their papers, when the little girl looked up she saw the girl across from her was holding a small animal shaped eraser, one with tiny googly eyes. She smiled her tiny hesitant smile at the girl who did not acknowledge her. Glancing to the side she saw the boy next to her had an identical eraser. In fact everyone around her had that same eraser. And she knew what that meant. There had been a birthday party and everyone received this same eraser as a party favor. The pretty girl with the bouncy hair noticed her looking. She looked at her strangely with a satisfied smile and said, “Now you know how it feels.”

Green Woods

Whoa. My eyes snap open and from my porch perch I look out over the garden vegetables into the green woods. Where did that come from?? I’ve dredged up a memory and it is not the enjoyable kind. There’s a weight in the pit of my stomach and feeling exposed I want to run away like the child I once was. I have to remind myself to breathe.
After a long pause and more than a couple of deep breaths, I think about that child. I feel sadness and also pity for her, for how much she could not know at that moment in that long ago time. Childhood experiences have the power to inform and shape our lives. An early lesson in perceptions, group behavior and exclusion can turn into a lifelong journey for understanding and acceptance.
Later, reviewing that revived memory once again, I look at it with the distance of time firmly in place and shift my attention to the quiet peace in nature. With my barefeet anchored on the sharp dry grass of another hot summer day I feel my chest rise and fall with each breath. Slowly, gently, and with compassion in my heart, I lift my arms up towards the sky and, focusing on the movement, let them descend again.

Black eyed Susans

Loving-Kindness in Rancorous Times
Your mental and physical health are first and foremost yours to address. Limit the unfiltered rhetoric and heinous global acts you take in on a daily basis in order not to become hate-filled yourself. Resist fear by practicing some mindful detachment and invoking your abilities for sympathy and empathy. If you’re confused by the difference think of it this way. Sympathy is being able to relate to someone else’s feelings in a given experience. Say “I feel for you, I can relate, I’m so sorry this happened” – and really mean it. Empathy is having compassion and understanding based on deep knowing. Say “I can imagine that’s very frightening. Listening to this, I feel scared now too.”
When you feel overwhelmed with today’s uncertainty, choose the healthier path.

Acknowledge the Fear.
Take a Walk in the Garden.
Act with Compassion for Yourself and Others.

Version 2

All Photos Claire Mauro
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2 thoughts on “Sympathy vs Empathy

  1. This is a really nice post Claire. The memory begs continuance. We’re left with ” Now you know how it feels” and we imagine some (probably unintended?) slight on the girl’s part. The memory could evolve into a great short story, I think.

    • Thank you Ev. I always appreciate feedback, it confirms someone took the time to read, and I’m grateful. Would you say you could identify with the story? Did it speak to you in terms of sympathy or empathy?

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