Pity, Sympathy, Empathy and Altruism: Languages of the Heart

By: Dee Rivers

She walks quickly into the copse. Her three children clutch her skirt, secure in its shoddy circumference. Their footfall stirs a cumulus of dust, litter flutters in their wake.

The mother does not glance toward the passing tourist bus. Her children do, though, bedazzled by its bright blue paint and curious about the staring eyes in faces framed by glass that keeps them weatherproofed.

The bus driver, noticing the sudden silence of his passengers, seeks to re-direct their attention from the ragged quartet of squatters: “Now, if you look to your right, you will see …”

Among the passengers on such a tourist bus, most will have some feeling about the passing scene of the impoverished little family. In every one of them, those feelings will be ignited in their body’s limbic system, that, among myriad functions, supports human emotions. Beyond it though, the feelings that come are as individual as signatures.

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Some will immediately feel pity, that knuckle of knowing that presses deep discomfort into the diaphragm when viewing distress in others. “Nobody deserves to live like that,” is a typical immediate reaction of pity.

Yet, pity can be a plait of paternalism and unintentional condescension, such as the notion that the sufferer is impotent to affect positive change: The poor and wretched will always be among us.

Unlike sympathy, empathy, or altruism, pity keeps its distance. A pitying passenger will silently acknowledge the poor mother’s plight, then follow the bus driver’s lead and look to the right to see …

Pity is more spectator-like than compassion; we can pity people while maintaining a safe emotional distance from them. -- Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, The Subtlety of Emotions

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Some of the passengers on that bus full of humanity will have sympathy for the woman and her children, a stirring of deep concern. Their hearts will tremble with caring, and as the troublesome scene is left behind, the sympathetic ones will send silent thoughts for the family’s safety through perils … betterment for their lives hope for the children. Unlike seat mates who simply pitied, those who sympathize make an emotional investment in the struggles of the passing strangers.

“Indeed, sympathy is often more about the person sympathizing than the person being sympathized with.” (Unknown)

While shared emotions or perspectives are not necessary in order to be a sympathizer when people empathize, they experience both, and while not always, sometimes sympathy and empathy emerge in the same heart space.

“Sympathy is two hearts tugging at one load.”

― Charles Henry Parkhurst

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Although the pitiers and the sympathizers will settle back into their bus seats, soon emotionally recalibrated, there will be passengers who can not tamp their awareness of a seeming injustice, dealt by fate on a whim so random as birthplace. These are the ones bearing up under the crucible of empathy.pitiers and the sympathizers will settle back into their bus seats, soon emotionally recalibrated, there will be passengers who can not tamp their awareness of a seeming injustice, dealt by fate on a whim so random as birthplace. These are the ones bearing up under the crucible of empathy.

Being empathetic means that a person has the ability to not only recognize the emotions of another -- be it another person, any other sentient being, or even characters in a novel or movie -- but to literally feel it as their own -- to mirror it, to ache with it, to converge with the other’s condition and distress. They recognize it all, and they share it all. Unlike the temporary reactions of pity and sympathy to someone’s bad circumstance, empathetic people meld with the sufferer.

“Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” -- Daniel H. Pink

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Likely, of all the emotions arising from the bus riders, altruism is the rarest, a concern and devotion to the well-being of others that is so all-consuming, so unselfish, that it sublimates the altruist’s personal needs. Compassion -- that sweet drive to alleviate suffering -- impels altruism.

Oh, there are skeptics -- psychologists, and philosophers for that matter, who insist that altruism and empathy are driven by self-preservation, or for selfish feel-good payoffs, or for an unspoken expectation of reciprocation, or even a guaranteed reservation in heaven. However, the unavoidable satisfaction that comes with living a loving, giving life can hardly be described as intentional self-interest.

“The person who works for recognition devalues the work he does; altruism’s true name is always Anonymous. -- Davi Marusek, Mind Over Ship

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Niggling notions aside, for many, altruism makes for worthy living, and joins pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion as the warp and weft that weave a strong social fabric of cooperation, and service, and commitment to the goal of achieving a best life for all.

Regardless of nomenclature, because of the mysterious spirit that compels the human heart to feel Grace toward those living lessor days, a morning will come when the bus will stop, and a woman with three small children will step aboard, and she will have coins for the fare. The family will claim their seats, and they will sit back with deep breaths of relief and gratitude. “Now, if you look to your right …”

And they will. Finally, they will see the wonders.