If you have ever been at the site of a traffic collision, you would have noticed the hordes of people gaping at the hapless victims. They click their tongues in sympathy, pray for them even, but they will not lift a finger to tender first aid. This shows the chasm between sympathy and empathy, which seems to be getting more pronounced as time passes. When you sympathize with someone, you commiserate with them or pity them for their misfortune. On the other hand, if you empathize with someone, you put yourself in their shoes and share their pain vicariously.
The current political scenario in the Middle East, especially in the war-hit countries of Syria and Libya is leaving a multitude of people displaced from their native lands. Refugees, who are left with no other alternative flee to greener pastures like Europe, the United States and Canada. People watching this news from the comfort of their couches and beds pity the wretched lives of the refugees and promise themselves that they will work towards alleviating their suffering. But, when the refugees did turn up at their shores, millions of people were up on their feet protesting. Take, for example, Germany, where Angela Merkel, the Chancellor allowed almost a million immigrants into the country. The citizens who were largely supportive of the government’s plan to provide financial aid to the displaced Syrians, balked at the idea of permitting the immigrants to settle down in their country. People who were sympathetic to the cause of the Syrians, failed to empathize with them, something which would have changed their lives for the better.
Intellectually challenged and physically disabled people face a myriad of challenges while going about their daily life. As a society, we need to empathize with them and ensure that they do not lose out on opportunities to lead a regular life. Most people on seeing a blind person trying to cross a road will express sympathy, which is not what they need. Sympathy will not help them cross the street, but guidance driven by empathy will. There is a large misconception, especially in India, that those who do not excel in academics are of no use to society or that they will not succeed. It is easy to ridicule and taunt, but it requires talent and empathy to value their contributions. Instead of mocking them, we need to help them find their niche and help them integrate into society.
As social beings, we have an obligation to give back to society in return for everything we have received from it. Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving.” This can be easily related to sympathy and empathy; you can sympathize easily, but you need to put in effort if you want to empathize with a person, a cause or an idea.