Empathy and Sympathy.

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Empathy and sympathy are closely related words and concepts, but each is quite distinct from the other.

Both words draw part of their meaning from the Greek word pathos which means feeling and came from the PIE root *kwent(h) which means to suffer.

Empathy is an early 20th century word with much older roots.

To have empathy (n) is to empathise (v): to share a feeling, or more literally to be in the feeling, that someone else experiences. It suggests an ability to fully understand how another person feels and how their experience affects them both emotionally and practically. A person who empathises readily or easily is described as empathetic (adj) because they respond empathetically (adv).

Empathy is what Atticus Finch was teaching his daughter  in To Kill A Mockingbird:

“First of all, if you learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

In other words, empathy is necessary for understanding other people, and therefore their experiences and behaviour, too.

Sympathy differs in that it relates to sharing a feeling or experience with or alongside someone else. It has a sense of commonality and community, where empathy is more individual. One who sympathises (v) is described as sympathetic (adj) because they respond sympathetically (adv).

Sympathy is a much older word, dating back to the 1500s, when it entered English via French ‘sympathie’ from Latin sympathi‘ and before that, from Greek sympathes which meant to have a common feeling or to be affected by similar feelings. The prefix sym- means together so when added to pathos, the meaning is feeling together – synonymous with compassion, which literally means suffering together.

The differences are subtle, but definite. Consider these example responses to a person grieving a loved one:
Empathy: ‘I understand that you are sad and hurting. I understand life will never be the same again. I’m here for you.”
Sympathy: “I share your sorrow and pain. Life will never be the same, but I am here with you.”

In both cases, the person understands they are not alone, but the ways in which their experience is understood and shared differ.

Crucially, both empathy and sympathy must be genuine in order to actually exist. Token words and empty expressions are meaningless.

If one is unable to connect at any level with the experiences of others, or to offer anything other than a token acknowledgment of someone else’s suffering, they have neither. There are such things as empathy training and empathy coaches, but if the subject does not have the capacity for it, one may as well try to teach a fish to walk.

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References:
Macquarie Dictionary
Etymonline: Empathy and Sympathy

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‘Cancel Culture’ or Consequences?

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There has been a lot of discussion and a fair bit of outrage over recent months about different things being “cancelled”.

The term ‘cancel culture’ is thrown around quite liberally in response to a particular movie or TV show that will no longer be aired, a book that will no longer be published, or someone’s social media account being shut down.  ‘Cancel culture’ is often used as a slur to denigrate those who stand by the principles of integrity, equality and collectively being better about racism or hatred than we once were.

While it is true that sometimes such measures go too far or seem to be nitpicking, there are things which we should be willing to put behind us because we now understand and acknowledge they are hurtful or misrepresent the true nature of a group of people or a situation.

If something is racist, misogynistic or hateful, it should definitely be set aside and left in the past. We’re not saying it never existed: just that we don’t to continue being like that. As we move further into the 21st century, our society has evolved to understand things differently than we did a hundred, or even fifty, years ago.

If someone posts hate speech or promotes violence on social media, it goes against the terms and conditions agreed to when opening their account. Their ability to post might be restricted for a time, or shut down permanently. That’s not being cancelled: that’s the consequence of posting what they should not.

If someone disagrees or is offended by something another person posts, they are free to scroll past, or mute or block the poster. That is not cancelling: it’s a choice made by the individual to limit another person’s negativity and it’s effects on  them personally.

Personally, I have blocked certain people because I find their views repugnant. Others have probably blocked me, and I am completely okay with that: I am not so deluded as to expect everyone else to like me or to agree with my perspectives.

If I discover that I have said or written something hurtful, hateful,  or offensive, I’ll gladly apologise and unpublish it. I have done so in the past, because I am not perfect and I am the first to admit it. That’s not being cancelled, that’s being a decent person.

The decision made by the estate of Dr Seuss to no longer publish six of his many books is not cancelling all his books: it is an acknowledgement that some elements of those six books are problematic and may do more harm than good to the ongoing legacy of the much-loved author. You will still be able to read Green Eggs and Ham or Yertle the Turtle to your kids.

Backlash against certain politicians, journalists or other public figures over things they have said or done isn’t cancelling them. They still actually have more of a voice than most of us do. It’s just a consequence of them being horrible to other people and, quite frankly, they should be talking a good hard look at themselves instead of accusing others of being intolerant.

Thus, while some decry  ‘cancel culture’ and accuse others of being closed-minded, it is far more often the direct consequences of speech, though or actions that are no longer acceptable to many members of society. As uncomfortable as that truth may be for some, there are some things that really should be discarded and left in the past.

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‘Cancel Culture’ or Consequences?
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A Little Kindness

This afternoon, while I was in the supermarket, I saw the lady who used to do my father’s in-home care until he moved into residential care in May.

We started charting, and it became evident that she didn’t know the details of his passing in June. Somewhat surprised by that, I told her of his decline over the last few days of his life, and of my honour and  privilege in holding him in my arms as he died.

As the conversation wound down, I thanked her again for taking care of Dad, and for taking the time to stop and chat with me about him. We both blinked back tears, and then we parted ways.

I had held my emotions together while we were talking, but had a bit of a cry to myself in the otherwise empty pet supplies aisle a couple of rows over.  I told myself I should not feel silly,  nor should I try to hide my feelings. It had been a while since I’d had a cry, and it was probably healthy to let it go.

Still, standing among the bags of cat and dog food and kitty litter in the supermarket probably wasn’t the best place for it.

I thought I had got away with out anyone else noticing, but a lovely young man who worked in the store approached me and asked if I were okay. I told him I would be, I just needed to pull myself together. I managed a weak smile, hoping it would be enough to reassure him.

He smiled back and handed me a little purse pack of Kleenex. I realise that may not sound like much, but it was an act of kindness that brightened an otherwise  miserable moment, and one for which I am very thankful.

I’m also thankful for the reminder that it doesn’t always take much to make a difference in someone’s day.

As the popular saying goes, “in a world where you can be anything you want to be… be kind.”

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It occurred to me as I was writing this post that this is the second time  in recent months that I’ve been surprised by the kindness of a young person when they’ve seen my tears. That thought made me smile again.

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Irony, Dramatic Irony, and the Plot Twists of 2020

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Irony occurs when one thing is expected, but the opposite thing happens or turns out to be true. 

When the audience knows or understands something that the characters in a story or on stage or screen do not, that is called dramatic irony. 

It should be noted, too, that an event or outcome being ironic for one person or group does not preclude it being predictable for other people

Both irony and dramatic irony are much-loved devices for writers, but they do not only exist in literature and film. 

In fact, one could argue that the reason writers use these techniques is because they know that these things happen in everyday life, and that people love it when they do. The profundity of natural irony, dramatic or otherwise, is like crack for writers, who are often keen observers of human nature and behaviour.

Irony is a powerful thing. It can evoke all sorts of responses, ranging from pity to laughter to judgement, depending on the perspective of each onlooker. It can bring about self-pity, humility or significant changes in attitude and behaviour for those who experience it. 

When well executed by an author, irony creates plot twists and complications that add depth and complexity to a story, but which also make the experiences of the characters relatable and intriguing for readers. 

When expertly executed by the universe, though, irony can blow one’s mind. 

Without being political, it was ironic that Boris Johnson dismissed the potential threat of COVID-19, counted on the population developing herd immunity, and then got so sick with the virus that he ended up crediting the medical team who cared for him with saving his life.  

Likewise, Trump denied the existence or threat of the virus and casually dismissed the illness and death of thousands of his own people. He refused to wear a mask or observe social distancing, he insisted on holding social events and campaign rallies against all medical advice. That he has tested positive and ended up in hospital with the virus is loaded with both types of irony. 

Trump’s mockery of Hilary Clinton when she suffered pneumonia during her campaign in 2016 was not only a dreadful thing to do, it has also proven now to be deeply ironic. 

There is little doubt that 45’s illness is a plot twist that he didn’t see coming. 

One would hope that his treatment with highly experimental drugs that others with the illness haven’t had access to doesn’t end up doing more harm than good. That would also be ironic. 

Personally, I find it impossible to feel sorry for him. 

My empathy lies with all those Americans who suffered the disease and who lost loved ones to it while he proclaimed it as fake, and with all those who cannot afford the instant access to hospital care and fancy drugs that he can. 

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Irony, Dramatic Irony, and the Plot Twists of 2020
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