Sympathy and empathy are not the same. They’re often used interchangeably as synonyms, but that is incorrect. When we sympathize, we’re able to recognize someone’s pain or suffering and we feel a strong desire to alleviate it. We see a person’s problems and we have an emotional and supportive reaction towards them. But to empathize, we need to go one step further. Empathy requires true understanding. It requires us to have once gone through the same struggle ourselves. It’s the difference between caring for a friend with cancer and commiserating with that same friend because you’ve gone through chemotherapy yourself and you know what it’s like. Anyone with a heart can sympathize, empathy requires a higher level of connectivity.
It’s important to be conscious of this difference. I think everyone should remember that just because you can recognize the pain and suffering of others, and just because you may have feelings of pity for them, it does not mean that you can really understand the depth of their despair or the magnitude of their struggle. I was reminded of this idea when I was thinking about the tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s certainly not hard to have incredible levels of sympathy when we see pictures of oil soaked wildlife, when we contemplate the death of 11 workers or when we witness the devastation to a beautiful seaside environment. But unless we’ve gone through a similar tragedy, or unless we’re former residents of this region, we can’t truly understand just how horrific of an event this actually has become. This doesn’t mean that our sympathetic feelings aren’t sincere, it only means that the enormity of the effect that this will have on the lives of millions is not entirely within our grasp.
My own inability to truly comprehend the significance of this event dawned on me on a recent trip to Lake Michigan. We all have our own places and destinations with which we have a special bond. The pristine beaches and clear waters of Michigan’s Western Coast are sacred places for me. The feelings of rejuvenation and fulfillment that I get every time I visit these shores are feelings that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Lake Michigan provides for me a reminder of nostalgic memories, offers a destination for unlimited fun and relaxation and serves as a source for spiritual reflection and deliberation. I’ve been many places in my 33 years on this planet, but none inspire the reverence I feel quite like the fresh waters of Lake Michigan.
It was during my last trip to the beach that I began pondering what it would be like if the oil spill disaster had happened here instead of in the Gulf. My stomach sank as I imagined tar-balled beaches, dead fish and oil-drenched seagulls. I pictured idyllic towns like Grand Haven swarmed with corporate lawyers, visiting politicians and hired goons in haz-mat suits. My mind conjured up visions of roadblocks, toxic warning signs and a national press clamoring for their next story. I was horrified as I began to visualize just what an irrevocable transformation it would represent. It’s not a stretch to say that if it had happened here, this place that I consider sacred would be ruined for the remainder of my years.
This idea of total and complete destruction isn’t given nearly the attention it deserves. The Gulf Coast is a sacred and special location for millions of Americans. We’ve heard endless stories about the loss of livelihood for fishermen. We know all about the looming collapse of tourism. We’re totally familiar with the concept of a ravaged ecosystem. But do we realize that when we talk about the oil spill the full breadth of the disaster is greater than merely just the sum of the parts? A shrimp boat captain may be losing thousands as his ship sits idle in port, but what’s the value of the loss he feels when the beach where he proposed to his wife is now covered with tar? A restaurant owner may be forced to close her doors, but is it not a greater tragedy that her children will never learn to swim in the same waters that she did so many years before? Costs and losses of income can be measured and assigned a value, but the desecration of memories and the evisceration of an environment cannot.
When I imagined the oil spill corrupting my sacred place, the emotions inside of me ranged from deep sorrow to seething anger and encompassed every point in between. And this was only my imagination. What’s truly being felt by those who are there? No news story, no magazine article, no presidential visit, no blog post could ever hope to capture the full range of emotion that must be boiling inside of everyone that was personally affected by this disaster. If this happened here, any and every reaction I could conjure would seem to be completely rational. My mind could justify violence as easily as it could justify depression. The people of the Gulf Coast have had something precious taken away from them. How can we possibly fathom what that loss might mean? Anyone with a soul is moved by the plight of everyone affected, but the way the images of oil-soaked pelicans affect you and I can’t compare to the unrest and sorrow that is plaguing those who witness it first-hand. We have to try to go beyond merely feeling sorry. We need to picture ourselves in their place to begin to comprehend the gravity of the situation. For them, it is not just an environmental disaster, it’s a complete corruption of their world and an utter destruction of what they possibly hold most dear.
Where is your sacred place? Would you be moved to tears if that place was forever spoiled by the folly and hubris of others? Could you put into words or convey to a stranger the entire span of emotions you would feel? And most importantly, could you assign a monetary value to what has been taken away? We’re supposed to be impressed that BP agreed to set aside $20 billion to cover their liabilities, but in my eyes, that amount doesn’t come close to fulfilling the emotional and spiritual debt they owe. No amount of money can replace dreams. Memories, wonder and inspiration can’t be bought. A cool ocean breeze, a dazzling sunset and the scent of the salt air are priceless commodities. All of those things have been taken away from every single man, woman and child who either grew up or currently lives near the Gulf Coast.
As I strolled on the beach that day, I found myself feeling ashamed that I hadn’t put the oil spill into this context before. My sacred place remains unspoiled. I am free to walk with white sand between my toes while the warm sun glows all around me. The absence of this freedom, the theft and destruction of the place that serves as such a mental refuge for me, would be a life-altering experience. Up to that point, I had certainly felt my fair share of sympathy for all the people who have been affected, but I never understood just how awful it could be. I am not equipped with the experience and knowledge necessary to truly empathize with their situation. My special corner of the world has yet to be significantly touched by those same hands of greed and consumption. I have a new appreciation for the pain that’s been thrust upon them. We should all be entitled to relish and enjoy the beauty of our natural surroundings. That coastline and those waters do not belong to BP and they do not belong to the government. They belong to the swimmers, fishermen and sunbathers that have occupied them for years. Their destruction, is nothing short of a crime.
Somewhere in Louisiana or Mississippi, there’s a child who’s sitting inside on a beautiful summer day. Under different circumstances, that child might be building sandcastles, playing in the surf or doing any number of activities that would serve as the starting point of a special bond between him and the shore. He’s just one of thousands that are missing out on a new and exciting connection to the natural world. The next time I’m at Lake Michigan, the next time I’m relishing in past memories and reaffirming my bond, I’ll pause to remember their struggle. I’ll pray for the wisdom to understand their loss and pray that I never have to experience the same.
The only criticism I have for the article on empathy is that you don’t actually have to have had a similar experience in your own life to experience empathy. When you did such a good job imagining the situation in your own life you were experiencing empathy. Otherwise that was a beautiful point to make. I often have stabs of guilt when I’m reading the news because I realize I’m not taking the time to really think about things and care enough.
I would agree…but the point is that empathy without a full and complete understanding still falls a little short. I can sit on the beach at Lake Michigan and imagine how awful it would be, but my hypothetical experience will never be able to compare to those who are experiencing it for real. When we’re removed from a situation, our feelings will always tend more towards sympathy. The difference is subtle, but it’s still a difference nonetheless.
Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. More essays will be coming shortly!