Judy Small is an Australian songwriter who has now set aside her guitar to be a federal court judge. I first heard her music in the 1980s, when I was editing books. One song in particular caught my attention. At the time I was working with an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The song, “Walls and Windows,” has this refrain: “The wall that stands between us could be a window too. When I look into the mirror, I see you.” Pondering this wisdom, I couldn’t help noticing that the real mirrors in our lives are other people.
From our first days on earth, we learn about ourselves from watching how people respond to us. The newborn looks first to a parent or caretaker. As we mature, the important mirror can be a loved one, someone we admire, or simply someone with whom we want or need to connect.
Throughout our lives we depend on the responses we elicit from those around us. They tell us who we are. As Helen Riess says in her TEDxMiddlebury Talk “The Power of Empathy,” “Everyone needs to see their specialness reflected in the eyes of others.”
I am talking here about feelings, of course, and not about questions of right or wrong. We want to see in others’ eyes that we are loved, appreciated, and accepted. The emotional feedback we get determines how connected we feel.
Recently I have been hearing a lot about sympathy, empathy, and the distinction between them. Often the speaker praises empathy and denounces sympathy as vastly inferior, even undesirable. And yet both facilitate interpersonal relationships. There is a place for both in human discourse.
Merriam-Webster defines sympathy as “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.” Empathy, on the other hand, is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another” (italics added).
As these definitions suggest, the two are not mutually exclusive. An empathic person is probably also sympathetic. The reverse may or may not be the case.
With sympathy, the listener contemplates the suffering of the speaker objectively, from some remove. In empathy, the listener imagines standing in the speaker’s shoes. The empathic listener can step closer, daring to feel the emotions.
Let’s consider some examples. If you speak to me about the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I hope I convey my immense sympathy for the siblings, parents, and community that endured this disaster.
I have not myself been to Newtown, Connecticut, and I don’t know anyone who lives there. The horrific suffering is nonetheless etched in my mind, thanks to the news media, but I haven’t yet come face to face with it. I can only imagine it.
If, on the other hand, you sit in my consulting room and speak about the death of your child in Newtown, tears will probably well up in my eyes. My own experience of loss equips me to feel your grief vicariously.
When two people are talking to each other, the mirroring effect is at its most powerful, helping us feel heard and understood. When circumstances remove us physically or intellectually from the distress, sympathy is a natural response.
Sympathy may be socially appropriate. When your grandfather died, I sent you a sympathy card. The celebration of his life and the commemoration of his death are family matters.
In the midst of your grief you might not have wanted me shedding tears with you at the scene because, after all, I did not know him. My sympathy card is better because it acknowledges your sorrow and my respect for it.
Sympathy may find an outlet in emotionally expressive words. Empathy, on the other hand, is a whole body phenomenon that is plain to see.
Listening as you speak, I meet your gaze. My face shows concern. You can tell that I am hearing your every word.
I lean forward slightly in your direction. My arms and legs and hands may be in roughly the same position as yours. I reflect and validate your statements.
By “reflect” I don’t mean that I repeat verbatim what you say. Therapists who do this often seem either stupid or hard of hearing.
Instead I summarize what you have said, stressing the feelings you expressed. I let you know that I find them important, natural, and recognizable, something I know because you and I were born with the same emotional kit.
My own experience helps me understand. You need me to say so. We all want to belong, be understood, and feel accepted. When I echo your pain, embarrassment, shame, or anger, you feel supported.
People who display sympathy rather than empathy in interpersonal relations comment from a distance. They may have decided, consciously or not, to dodge the other person’s potent emotions, finding them overwhelming. It takes self-awareness, self-acceptance, and maturity to stay in touch with your own feelings while hearing someone else’s.
Sympathy accommodates social convention. Empathy strengthens connection. To the extent that we make our interactions mainly text messages or posts in social media, we give up the possibility of empathy.
When we forfeit opportunities to let other people know that we feel for them, we lose touch with each other and also with ourselves. And yet, as Helen Riess notes, a sense of connection is essential for our survival both as individuals and as a species. We need to be present for each other live and in person to make it happen.
As long as we are lone rangers who speak mainly through our smart phones, our collective survival is in jeopardy. For our own protection we must reach out to one another in more ways. We must create a global community of cooperative, collaborating, altruistic individuals. We must learn to listen. I must be able to see in the mirror both my own image and yours.
Surely this idea strikes at the true meaning of Judy Small’s song. You mirror me, as I do you. Our lives depend on this looking glass. When we turn away from it, walls and distance mess with us. Bad things happen. In the twenty-first century the world is too small a place for us to let this occur.