Empathy and sympathy by Angela Caldin

I was pondering the other day on the difference between empathy and sympathy and having a bit of difficulty distinguishing between the two.

Empathy, it seems, is a fairly modern concept encompassing the ability to understand emotionally and cognitively what other people feel. It’s the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and imagine yourself in the place of another. In essence, it is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they are feeling.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is a feeling of pity or sense of compassion for someone else’s suffering. It’s when you feel sorry for someone else who’s going through something difficult.

I was still struggling with the difference when I read the joyful news in the Guardian that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been freed and had arrived home. I was suddenly sure that my feelings for her amounted to empathy. She had spent six years either in prison or under house arrest and I could imagine how awful that would be; I have always had a dread of being imprisoned, facing a door with no handle. She had been separated from her child and missed so many of her formative years; I could imagine the pain of separation and the thwarting of maternal instincts. She had suffered the frustration of being told she would be freed, only to have those hopes dashed; having suffered from depression in the past, I could identify with her black despair.

There were, of course, other people in this tragedy: Nazanin’s husband who doggedly kept her situation in the public eye, lobbying ministers and going on hunger strike, Nazanin’s daughter who started school without her mother and Nazanin’s parents who supported their daughter throughout her ordeal. I feel great sympathy for them all, but it is Nazanin for whom I feel immense empathy.

When she gave her press conference and spoke so calmly and eloquently, not afraid to state her point of view, I experienced another feeling: admiration. I admired her for calling out those who had failed her and allowed her to be held hostage. It seems that her remarks led to criticism that she was ungrateful and not subservient enough. Hard to believe such reproaches, but one thing is for sure: I have neither empathy nor sympathy with such pathetic trolls.

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