Sympathy Redux

A few decades ago, “sympathy” became a dirty word—or so it seemed to me.

If you were psychobabbily hip, you knew you weren’t supposed to have the emotion or use the word because “sympathy” smelt of snootiness and condescension and was demeaning to the person on the receiving end. “Sympathy” was synonymous with “pity,” and nobody wanted anybody’s pity, thank you very (expletive deleted) much!

Instead, what you were supposed to feel and express was empathy: You were supposed to feel with the other person.

But feeling with another person can go too far. There’s little benefit to anyone if two people are depressed instead of just one. There are people within my qigong community who are considered to be empaths, meaning they literally take on other people’s emotions or ailments through some sort of energetic transfer over which they have no control. Needless to say, this can be very hard on them.

I am not an empath. I am whatever I am and feel whatever I feel, but I have edited myself to say “empathy” instead of “sympathy” on numerous occasions and have been critical of people who didn’t. But now I am thinking that perhaps the word “sympathy” deserves more respect.

Yi Ren Qigong founder Dr. Guan-Cheng Sun has often spoken against the sort of self-sacrifice where you put so much energy into easing another’s pain that they end up feeling better but you end up feeling drained—and what’s more, because you solved their problem for them, they didn’t learn how to solve it for themselves. At a recent seminar he put a slightly different twist on this, saying that we could learn to create energetic medicine in our own bodies and that we could choose to share it if we had extra—but only if we had extra.

I’m not sure what this energetic medicine is, and I’m even less sure that I can make it, let alone share it—although I do know that I could improve my own health and probably the health of those around me by reducing the stress in my life and resolving some emotional issues. And qigong is certainly one way to do this, whether or not I view myself as making energetic medicine.

But somewhere in all this I also see something about the difference between sympathy and empathy. Empaths take empathy to one extreme, while people of the “oh, you poor little dear” persuasion take sympathy to another (although really, when you think about it, there are worse things in this world than any form of concern for another human being).

But between the two extremes, it’s possible to feel for and help another person without being condescending and without becoming as depressed, enraged or stricken by grief as that person is.

I think Dr. Sun was trying to help empaths, who need to shore up their energetic boundaries, when he talked about energetic medicine as some sort of entity that one might or might not choose to share. (He probably doesn’t worry about the condescenders, since qigong and other meditative practices tend to open up the heart and lessen the me-you gap.)

But he made me think about what it really means to help another person—and how to talk about it.

And I say, let’s hear it for sympathy redux!

And by the way, if you don’t know what redux means, don’t feel bad. The word came to me in the shower after I started writing this post, but then I had to look it up. It means “brought back, revived, restored.”

Several online dictionaries also noted that “redux” is used postpositively. And if you don’t know what “postpositively” means, don’t feel bad about that either. I had to look it up, too. It means “placed after or added to a word.” As in “sympathy redux.”


Filed under Philosophy

3 responses to “Sympathy Redux

  1. Peter

    Hi Barbara. Thanks for your post. I really like the depth you take in your reflections on empathy and sympathy. After reading it I found my self reflecting on qualities that sometimes occur in the movements between two tai chi push hands players. For the past few months I have been exploring where the intent of ‘supporting’ my push hands partner, changes to being ‘disconnected’ from them. And what, if anything, sits at the boundary between these two. Your post on empathy and sympathy gave me the idea of including these dimensions in my push hands exploration. That and remembering to be mindful of not loosing my center and equilibrium in the process. Thanks again.
    Regards Peter

    • This is very nice — and makes me think it is time for me to try push hands again. I did a few push hands seminars with my former teacher but was torn between being afraid of falling and feeling it wasn’t fair for my partners, who were youngish men who were probably worried about causing someone their mother’s or even grandmother’s age to fall. But I think that at my new school, things will be a bit more restrained….

  2. karlthunemann

    A cute post. It leaves me supposing that people who have a capacity for empathy are addicts who need an intervention. I think the world has a place for both em- and sym-

    >________________________________ > From: >To: >Sent: Friday, August 2, 2013 12:47 PM >Subject: [New post] Sympathy Redux > > > > >bjbrachtl posted: “A few decades ago, “sympathy” became a dirty word—or so it seemed to me. If you were psychobabbily hip, you knew you weren’t supposed to have the emotion or use the word because “sympathy” smelt of snootiness and condescension and was demeaning to the ” >

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