S felt sympathetic with their houseguest, who was spending a few days with them after her miscarriage. He felt “sympathy” for her, but when asked by a friend over coffee if he could empathize with the woman’s loss, he replied, “sympathy, yes, empathy, no”. He went on to say, “Since we can never experience exactly what someone else is experiencing, what people call empathy is really just sympathy.”
His coffee companion responded, “If we could completely experience what someone else is going through that would not be empathy. That would be some kind of hypnosis, devoid of the open space in which feeling for another person could arise.”
“I sympathize with your need to give ‘sympathy’ an impressive title, since most sympathy is just lip service. But what you call ‘empathy’ is really just sympathy with a claim to being sincere,” S proclaimed.
The conversation went downhill from there—two aging and disputatious men trotting out their well-rehearsed convictions, without much sympathy, let alone empathy for one another’s viewpoints. But it was a welcome diversion from the echo chamber in which old opinions hold uncontested sway in the court of the self.
That night S slept fitfully and for not nearly as long as both his body and mind would have liked.
He awoke in darkness, torn from sleep but not yet from the world of his dream in which he remained ensconced.
He was a farmer in rural France. It was 1941 and news from the front had just arrived: their son had been killed. (His wife had not been a complete person ever since their older son had been a casualty of the same conflict—shot as he was leading their cow toward the wood shed in an attempt to save something, as the sound of cannon fire came closer and closer.) Now his wife started screaming, and it was as if the grief of a thousand women found its way into his dream, leaving no room for him to stay there.
S sat on the edge of his bed in the darkened bedroom. Gradually he identified the illuminated dial of his clock radio and could make out the armchair with his shirt and trousers folded across the back. Bit by bit, thought by thought, his mind returned to 2017 in the American Southwest, and to the life of a man spared such terrible grief.
He also returned to a mind convinced that “empathy” is the bogus entity of religious systems, whose aim is to convince people that they are incapable of directing their own lives. Or as he had told his friend the day before, “Give people an impossible task—that of stepping into the hidden recesses of another’s mind—in their sense of inadequacy they will be willing to accept the intervention of a higher power in their lives.”
But later that morning, noticing the way his house guest sat under the cottonwood tree in the back yard, not stirring even when a hummingbird hovered a few feet in front of her chair, S felt an unaccountable pang—as if a neighbor in rural France had just knocked on the front door with a sealed military envelop in his hand, and he had known before a word was spoken that something terrible had happened.