Empathy—whether it’s a feeling evoked upon seeing the image of a needy child or an alcoholic beggar—can distract. It misleads.
Empathy is a noun meaning “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person,” according to an online Oxford English dictionary. This resonates with what I learned, or was reminded of, nearly 30 years ago in a medical school classroom. Empathy is when you perceive what it’s like to be someone else—when you can imagine, or maybe know, what it’s like to walk in their shoes. So to speak.
Sympathy, also a noun, involves affinity between two creatures. You might feel, for another, sorry or pity or love—though that word didn’t come up. We were receiving instruction in a mandatory medical ethics seminar. A list on a sheet of paper provided terms we needed to know: autonomy, beneficence, paternalism, consent, sympathy, empathy, etc.
By Elaine Schattner