What is Empathy?

I recently had an experience that for me answered the question - what is empathy? It also clarified the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Years Later It Happened To Me.

For years I had sympathy for people who had painful joints, and who found it difficult for instance to use both hands to full effect.

I had seen this in my mother and had sympathy for her, often giving her advice to see a different doctor or go to a healer.

My sympathy was real but I also found her stubbornness frustrating and would occasionally be even angry with her for suffering on.   

 I woke one morning with pain and stiffness in my left hand. Over the next few days two fingers on the hand became “frozen” and very painful. My inherited stubbornness took over. I began to painfully exercise the “frozen” fingers, changed my eating habits, drank more water and scoured the internet for a solution.

But the stiffness grew and the pain persisted.  I was now carrying pain around with me every day; not enough to stop my world but enough to alert me to physical pain as a constant companion.

I did of course take action; had minor surgery that removed the pain and restored the hand to almost normal functioning.

This was a relatively minor incident in my life, but one that made it much clearer to me the difficulties that must be encountered by people living with physical pain.

Even knowing that the pain I suffered was minor compared to what some people must live with my sympathy for their plight subtly changed and helped me answer the question - what is empathy? 

When Sympathy Is Not Enough

I recently came across the amazing story of Kennedy Odede. From an almost impossible position this man is transforming the lives of many people.

He was born into a slum in conditions that would be almost impossible for most of us to even imagine.

He saw the suffering around him but because he was suffering himself his feeling was not one of sympathy but empathy.

He founded a movement Shining Hope for Communities and together with his friend Jessica Possner expanded it to a point where it is empowering many people whose life conditions are extremely difficult.

What Does "Shining Hope For Communities" do?

This is the true meaning of what empathy is and it was a natural inclination for Kennedy in the circumstances.

A Natural Inclination

There is a debate going on at present in the world of popular psychology around what’s being called the mirror neurons in our brains.

Some research suggests that because of these cells we humans have a natural inclination for empathy: 

This is one definition but there is no doubt that with the constant pressures we are under these days this natural inclination can be pushed into the background.

“Somehow, we must rediscover empathy, which seems to have been lost amidst the junk that consumes our daily lives”. Rachael Ben Avi

Rediscovering What Empathy Is

To help rediscover this feeling examine these two statements: 

“I sympathize with you but there is nothing I can do”.

“I empathize with you but  there is nothing I can do"             

This one seems the more usual situation and is often the best we can do; genuine sympathy but also the belief that with such a busy life it’s hard to help.

This one now seems a bit more difficult. If we allowed empathy to arise could we find the time, even in a busy life, to lend a helping  hand?                         

What Is Empathy?- Feel it here in four minutes -

Developing Empathy

Remarkably help is at hand through an organisation founded and run by Edwin Rutsch.

The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy has among as its aims - 

“… a project on promoting and fostering the value and experience of empathy..... working to build a movement to support building a global culture .... looking at nurturing societal transformation, where empathy becomes the primary social and cultural value in the world culture”.

                    What a great idea !!!

In a busy life, where we can feel sympathy for many people and causes but also feel the frustration and sometimes even guilt of inaction,this Center offers an opportunity to engage and deliberately enhance feelings of empathy.

How Helping You Can Help Me Too.

So through having a painful hand, reading about a slum development program in Nairobi and discovering a remarkable organization I’m now happy that I do see the difference between sympathy and empathy.

I also see how our “natural inclination” can often be buried under our fears and worries.

This is not exactly a paradigm shift in thinking but a change in emphasis.

When we are sympathetic it tends to imply pity but keeps a distance between us and the other person’s feelings.


I now also try to practice the following:

Listening more closely to another person speaking and trying not to form a reply before fully getting what they are saying.

Minding body language: Trying not to signify impatience by glancing away or looking at a watch.

Trying not to fake interest in their problem and keeping ego out of the conversation.

These are small steps on a long journey of really answering the question - what is empathy?

But I know that this practice is powerful and empowering and as karma would have it – helping you will somehow help me too. 

> STAGE 2 Awareness: What Is Empathy

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