Empathy vs Sympathy
Feelings of empathy and sympathy are both examples of humans’ basic ability to be highly sensitive towards their fellow humans, and indeed towards all creatures, something that dictionary definitions of empathy and sympathy, while helpful, can only shed limited light on. The area of inquiry into human feelings and sensitivity—which is where the question of empathy vs sympathy arises—has been a difficult subject area for humans because it involves the issue of our species’ present less-than-ideally behaved human condition, the issue of why aren’t humans today able to show the sensitivity towards other beings that is innate in them and which they once could show.
Dictionary.com defines empathy as ‘The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’ If we were to expand on this, we could say that empathy is the ability to walk a mile in another person’s shoes; to use our inbuilt, born-with, innate sensitivity to feel someone else’s situation. Sympathy, on the other hand, is defined as ‘Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.’ So while sympathy is still an emotion that relies on sensitivity, it is slightly different in the sense that you don’t actually put yourself in another’s position, you simply look on knowing that the position they are in is difficult, and wishing it were otherwise.
While these definitions do point out a subtle difference in the meaning of empathy and sympathy, they tend to raise more questions than answers, for example: ‘Where do our feelings of empathy and sympathy come from?’; ‘How did we acquire the born-with, innate ability to feel/show empathy and sympathy?’; and, most disturbingly, ‘Why aren’t we humans now more empathetic and sympathetic?’ Traditionally, questions like these which bring the issue of the human condition into focus, have either been ignored, or attracted disagreement, conflicting hypotheses and even mystical explanations, which all attest to the fact that the underlying question of the origin of our present insensitive, non-ideal, even ‘corrupted’ or ‘fallen’ human condition has not been able to be solved.
Incredibly, however, science has now progressed to a point where we can finally explain and understand our present non-ideal, ‘corrupted’ or ‘fallen’, human-condition-afflicted lives, which means that these fundamental questions regarding empathy vs sympathy can at last be answered. Yes, most wonderfully, the biologist Jeremy Griffith has synthesised the answer to the ultimate question of the origin of the psychologically upset state of the human condition, and with that mystery explained, an avalanche of answers to related questions do finally become accessible.
The comprehensive explanation of the human condition is available in this Introductory Video Series and Freedom: Expanded Book 1: The Biology, by Jeremy Griffith. What is explained is that we humans are suffering from a psychologically upset state, characterised by angry, alienated and egocentric behaviour that is the result of a two million year old, unavoidable clash between our original gene-based instinctive self and our newer nerve-based conscious mind which had to search for knowledge or understanding. Our upset human condition then, is a state of insecurity that we have all lived with, which was brought about by our inability to explain and defend our angry, alienated, and egocentric behaviour—why, when all the ideals are to be loving, cooperative and selfless, are we humans seemingly divisive, destructive and selfish? Why did we lose our capacity for sensitivity? Why are we capable of the extreme brutality, indifference and insensitivity that humans exhibit today?
Now that we are finally able to compassionately explain this great mystery and riddle, this deep insecurity that we humans carry about our self-worth is finally removed, and we can now safely address the real issues surrounding empathy vs sympathy. We can now safely admit that they are both expressions of our extremely sensitive, all-caring, moral instinctive self or soul that still exists within us from a time when our distant ancestors lived in a genuinely cooperative, selfless, loving state. And we can now explain that it was our unavoidable preoccupation with the battle of the human condition that meant, ‘This instinctive empathy we once had is now much repressed in us’ (Jeremy Griffith, Free: The End of the Human Condition, 1988). Griffith also explains that a tragic consequence of the psychologically upset state of the human condition has been that as human upset (anger, egocentricity and alienation) escalated, and the need for sympathy increased, we have been increasingly unable to sympathise with each other: ‘For two million years humans have been unable to defend their search for understanding. We have each “known” our life was totally legitimate and worthy and have been preoccupied trying to establish that fact. We were constantly looking for support and sympathy for ourselves. Real sympathy has not been possible until now so the best we could hope for was to find other people like ourselves and a realm that didn’t expose us’ (Jeremy Griffith, Free: The End of the Human Condition, 1988).
What is so exciting, is that with the human condition now explained, all the pain and anger, the psychological upset, that accompanied it will now subside, and we humans will again be able to fully access our innate capacity for empathy and sympathy—not to mention pure excitement as well!
That this is humanity’s long sought after answer to the human condition is reflected in the unqualified excitement and support given to it by Professor Harry Prosen, a former president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association who has spent a career researching empathy in both humans and bonobo chimpanzees; for Professor Prosen has said: ‘I have no doubt this biological explanation of Jeremy Griffith’s of the human condition is the holy grail of insight we have sought for the psychological rehabilitation of the human race.’