Sympathy v Empathy
Empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner [Merriam-Webster].
Sympathy – the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another [Merriam-Webster].
Merriam-Webster distinguishes sympathy and empathy as being different in the manner of which we are experiencing the feelings we are experiencing. In clearer terms, sympathy is when we're sad with our grieving friend because we know they are grieving, whereas empathy is projecting ourselves into their shoes and understanding what they are going through, despite not being explicitly told why they're feeling that way.
Every person you've ever known is going through tribulations, most of which you're completely unaware of. Some problems of which would be considered "lesser" than yours, but others which would be considered apocalyptic to you. You may be able to sympathize – and even ideally, potentially empathize – with some of those problems. Other problems, well, it'd be a lie to say sometimes we don't get frustrated when people consider mundane problems to be horrible while we're going through something "objectively" worse.
But that's where we mislead ourselves. Our problems are always inherently subjective. Comparing grief is the first step in the opposite direction of empathy. It's human nature to compare circumstances, but we just have to try to intervene before our minds wander to anger and spite.
At the end of the day, we're all in this together and none of us are getting out alive. In my journey with CF, I have dealt with problems that many would argue are objectively worse than most others at my age. One of the most common compliments (?) I hear is "I'd never be able to have as positive mindset as you when dealing with all you go through, Tré."
And though I appreciate the compliment or praise, this thought process has never resonated with me. I have no choice. Truthfully, my positivity is a deflection, a defense mechanism. There are moments when I feel like I'm at the bottom of the hole and it's constantly getting deeper. I get tired. I feel tragically hopeless sometimes. I struggle more often than most people realize and more often than I openly express.
It'd be disingenuous for me to say I'm a well of positivity and hope all the time. There are times where I'm furious that I'm not a "normal" 23-year-old living carelessly, feeling like I'm invincible with all the time left in the world. I consider the fact that a missing microscopic amino acid has wreaked havoc on my family for decades, and it fills me with so much anger and disappointment and frustration and pain that I could never properly express that in words. I hate even telling people that I feel that way sometimes since it shows a crack in my armor. It scares me to let people know that because I feel like I must always be a beacon of hope for my family and friends.
Because of CF, I have a deep-seated neural pathway that shows up in moments of weakness; I consider how I'd like to be eulogized, how I actually would be eulogized, and how I'd eulogize others at this point in time. It feels unhealthy to wonder so much about death of myself and the death of those close to me, but I allow the process to take place since it fills me with love, compassion, empathy, and sympathy for those individuals. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds me of such a crucial lesson: we're all just looking out for ourselves in this lifetime.
I'd like to think I'm good at empathizing with others and showing sympathy to struggling friends, family, and strangers. Life hurts sometimes, and sometimes it may even feel like life hurts more than it feels good. I think most people would agree with this sentiment: when we're in pain, life wretches along at a wickedly slow pace; when we're having fun, time flies by inconspicuously.
But in those moments of pain, one of the most fulfilling things that can happen is someone recognizing our pain and trying to sympathize. It's important for us to envisage our feet in the shoes of someone struggling and then taking the time to remember how good it would feel if someone would just reach out in that moment. Once the feelings that you think that person is feeling start to hit you, you've empathized with them. Empathy is a transcendent human emotion. Empathy is what intrinsically binds us all in the human experience that is our lifetime on Earth.
Last week, I gave a talk at a CF Family Day. My doctor asked me to explain to the audience how I maintained my motivation daily in the never-ending fight against CF. I explained that I tried to normalize the fight; make it a part of my day in ways that don't make it feel like it's that much different than what a "normal" adult's day would be.
After a week of deeply contemplating that question, I realized that that may have been a bit of a falsehood. I think I let my veneer of confidence, hope, and positivity cloud the truth. The truth is I have no interest in dying at a young age. I hate the idea of being sick and having my life stolen from me. I'm tired of constantly worrying about my health and my future and how much time I have left.
So the real answer to why I maintain my daily motivation is this: I'm buying time. I'm obsessed with doing everything I can to ensure I maintain steady health until the day CF is cured. And maybe that's not a bad thing. Sickness terrifies me, so the realization that sickness may one day be near being a primary motivator is a damn good motivator. Maybe the reason I don't honestly admit that frequently is because I don't want people to be scared for me. I adore the amount of support I frequently receive. But I resent the idea that people have to wonder if I'll be around in ten years.
I set out to write specifically on sympathy and empathy and why I believe it's so important for us to learn in our daily life how to better empathize with others. It turned into me writing about how the trials of life with CF are daunting and unrelenting. They take their toll on me.
But I hope that it allows people a better insight into my brain so they can understand me better and understand the life I live daily with a chronic illness. I hope it allows people the opportunity to empathize with me. Maybe this can be an exercise for others to see that my life is filled with daily battles against my own body and mind and yet sometimes I allow an appearance as though those battles are easily waged.
Perhaps I can be an example of somebody who is going through more tribulations than I let on. Maybe then, if I wear my heart on my sleeve and speak genuinely from the heart, people – including myself – can try to understand that others have their own battles that feel like they are the only battles in the world.
We all have a fight. Take a second to remember that everybody wants the best for themselves and their families. Keep fighting the good fight.
And never forget: Dum spiro spero.