Empathy and sympathy

A friend of mine confessed that while he has sympathy for others he lacks empathy.

What does this mean? Here is how I took it: He is able to sympathize with isolated and momentary feelings that another person has. Something in him resonates and participates in the experience of feeling with the other. But empathy involves constellations of feeling that endure over time. To empathize would be to really get that other person’s persistent experience of the world as a whole.

When we sympathize we feelingly relate spirit-to-spirit, part-to-part, atomistically.

When we empathize we feelingly relate soul-to-soul, whole-to-whole, holistically.

Admittedly, I might have him wrong, so I won’t assume yet that I have understood what he meant. This is only my first understanding, and while this understanding seems to me to be true and plausible and coherent, that only distinguishes it from confusion. Misunderstanding is tricky because it is nearly  indistinguishable from understanding. The most reliable indication of whether you understand or misunderstand the other is whether the other agrees with your understanding. The question is not whether your understanding of what was said was true, it is whether it is true as the other meant it. (The author is far from dead — but he is in no position to dictate to you what is or is not true. He is, however, qualified to tell you if you understood what we was trying to say as he meant it.)

It is too easy to superimpose one’s own way of seeing on the experience of the other. It is too easy to grasp isolated facts from a person’s world-view and mistake that for understanding the person’s philosophy or literary world. Understanding is not grasped. Understanding grasps.

(Hermeneutics is the discipline of recognizing and avoiding the deep habit of misunderstanding.)

The understanding of a person is a non-objective co-participation, which encompasses feeling (empathy), perception, thinking and modes of action. It manifests as a never-perfect but ever-perfecting sharing this mysterious world we share and don’t share.

Incidentally, this understanding is what I refer to as synesis, and it is the most important thing in the whole world.

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