July 13, 2012
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Around 50 years ago The Readers’ Digest carried an article suggesting that the word “sympathy” had become so degraded in common usage as to make the word unacceptable to many people. As I recall, the writer felt that “sympathy” had taken on too much of a connotation of superiority towards the person one felt sympathy for, and thus it was high time to find a replacement. And of course the writer had just the ideal word in mind. The word he suggested was “empathy,” a word that up to then had mostly been used by psychologists.
While I might agree that many people use “sympathy” in an improper way, I am not at all convinced that the suggested replacement is an improvement. I think it is rather a step backward, at least for Christians, to replace “sympathy” with “empathy.”
Let me explain. I believe that words have consequences, even if we don’t fully understand the etymology and meaning of the words we use. The more that we use a word, even if most of us don’t fully understand it, the more we are in danger of being led, individually and collectively, towards embracing the concept embedded in that word.
Sympathy, compassion and empathy are all formed from the Latin word pathos, which means feeling. The following definitions come from the Gage Canadian Dictionary:
Sympathy (syn– together + pathos feeling) 1. a sharing of another’s sorrow or trouble; a sharing, or ability to share. 2. an agreement in feeling; the condition or fact of having the same feeling; 3. an affinity between certain things, whereby they are similarly or correspondingly affected by the same influence.
Compassion (com– with + pathos) feeling for another’s sorrow or hardship that leads one to help the sufferer; sympathy; pity.
Empathy (en– in + pathos) Psychology. the quality or process of entering fully, through imagination, into another’s feelings or motives, into the meaning of a work of art, etc.
Note that while the first two words describe a condition of the heart, the last one is merely a state of mind. Sympathy, at its root, describes a heart that is tender and responsive, and will instinctively “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
Could it be that the hearts of many people have become shrivelled and hardened to the point that Psychology now offers the alternative of imagining that which they can no longer feel? Or is Psychology actually the culprit here, leading us to analyse and intellectualize rather than to feel?
Let’s put it another way: sympathy and compassion describe real feelings having very real value. Empathy is just a cheap man-made imitation.