The Power of Sympathy


I used to be a crazy kid. There are many definitions of “crazy”, and I’m sure that you can apply many of them to me, but I want to talk briefly about emotional craziness. I never cried – the few books and movies that made me cry were ones I considered “really good”. I never shed a tear during sweet/sad love movies or solemn tragedies, but my sisters or friends would sit around me bawling their eyes out.
I don’t know what that was about, honestly. It didn’t wear off either, it persisted until a few months ago. It wasn’t that I was emotionless. I wasn’t – just ask my parents who had to deal with me at ages 14, 15 and 16. (I don’t envy them at all.) Just ask my sisters, who somehow put up with childish mood swings and the occasional temper tantrum.

I wasn’t emotionless, I just had little sympathy. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve ignored a homeless man or woman on the streets of DC without even thinking about how cold they must be, or scrolled quickly by pictures of hungry kids in Africa. At this point, you may be thinking, “okay, she’s beating herself up for not being susceptible to emotional appeals. great.”. But I’m not. Keep reading.

Sympathy. We’ve all felt sympathetic, or even empathetic, to friends and family who have been struggling or enduring a loss. We’ve probably felt sympathetic for people we don’t know. Russian orphans, Indian beggars, and a multitude of people around the world. (Thank you, Internet and the advertising industry.) Much of the time, being susceptible to emotional appeals is viewed negatively. “She’s such a sap!” or “He’s such a girl!”. But is sympathy such a bad thing?

Let’s get real. Just because I’m arguing that sympathy is a good thing doesn’t mean that I’m saying you should donate 10% of your income to a charitable organization or make casseroles for every sick person you know. You may want to do that. Heck, maybe you should do that, but I’m not going to be the one to tell you, because ultimately, I’m not the one to decide where you should devote your time and money. 

However, the cultural perception that sympathy is a negative thing, a weakness that should be substituted by detachment and aloofness, is absolutely wrong. Absolutely. Wrong. I cannot emphasize this enough, so I’ll put it in bold. Again, it’s wrong. It is wrong because detaching yourself from real-world issues creates ignorance and promotes unawareness. But ultimately, it is wrong because putting on a front of detachment results in actual detachment from the sufferings of others, and impacts your ability to relate to others around you. 

Last Friday, I was riding the bus through the city streets. As you know, the area has been hit with a huge cold snap, so everyone was bundled up on the heated bus, wishing for the traffic to disappear. A woman in a parka with a rolled up sleeping bag and several suitcases walked around the corner, and I was hit hard by the thought that she might be homeless. Obviously, she might not be, but just the possibility of it opened up a well of emotion inside of me. I got off the bus and walked into the metro station, almost tripping over a homeless man huddled up with his dog. I felt my heart wrench in two in a way that I’d never experienced before.

I spent the entire evening reshaping the raw emotion inside into an enthusiasm that would help me throughout the evening –  I was helping at a church course, welcoming strangers to dinner and talking to them throughout the evening. Last time I’d done this, I’d felt awkward, and unable to relate to complete strangers, but this time was different, and I can only attribute it to the incredible amounts of sympathy I’d felt for two strangers on the journey there.

You may not be able to empathize with someone, but you can sympathize. The emotion of sympathy itself opens up relational possibilities that you might not have considered beforehand. How so? Approaching a conversation with sympathy or care allows you to become a listener. The conversation is no longer focused on you, and your wants, your desires, and your needs. All of these have their time and place, but intentionally connecting with someone on an emotional level requires you to become the invested audience, or in simple terms, a good listener. Because sympathy functions as a form of this emotional connection, it is an important part of building relationships.

It may feel strange to walk around in a world where everyone ignores emotional appeals because they make you vulnerable, but they are valuable because they make you vulnerable. This “weakness” can positively effect your relationships with others, and can take you places you never dreamed of.

Don’t feel guilty for having a conscience

One thought on “The Power of Sympathy

  1. I have always been the same way when it comes to not crying over movies and books, but I had never thought of it in this way. Thank you so much for this. I really need to work on my sympathy.

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