Saturday, 24 September 2011

In praise of sympathy


One of the many ideals in the care of young children is that adults should be able to “empathise” with children. I have often wondered about empathy, because it can suggest, to me at least, that the emotions of one person must be quite distinct and boundaried from those of another. To empathise, in this sense, would mean making an imaginative jump from one’s own emotional state and into the emotional state of another. I would prefer another way of thinking about this, that there is a kind of push and pull in all human feelings and it is never clear where one person’s ends, and another’s begins. 


The systems of feeling, in this view, are dynamic and the boundaries between one person and the next exist, but permit a lot of flow both ways. This is part of how I understand Winnicott’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as the baby” – how can one say exactly where a nursing infant ends and the mother begins? As John Donne wrote, “no man is an island” – and I do find it quite fascinating that this is so often misquoted as “man is an island”, even to the extent that Philip Larkin mis-remembered Donne as writing that “every man is an island, entire of himself.”

So I was fascinated to hear Colwyn Trevarthen talking about empathy and sympathy at Early Education last week.

Sympathy is, as it sounds, originally an Ancient Greek term which roughly translates as “fellow-feeling”. There is no necessary assumption of pity or sorrow in this – one might be sympathetic with a joyous friend, and the French have the lovely term “sympa” to mean nice or friendly as in “il est très sympa” - “he is a really nice person”, not “he is someone who feels a lot of pity.” Sympathy, in a non-English sense, implies a sharing of emotion, an attunement between people. (In passing, I wonder what it is about the English -  that we have narrowed this to an attunement to sorrow and suffering?)
Empathy, another Ancient Greek word, is translated as “physical affection, passion, partiality” and, according to a reliable-looking entry in Wikipedia “was adapted by Hermann Lotze and Robert Vischer to create the German word Einfühlung ("feeling into"), which was translated by Edward B. Titchener into the English term empathy.” 

This notion of “feeling into” is understood positively in English, yet interestingly in Modern Greek it has taken on a distinctly negative connotation. My Greek friend Maria explains that “the word 'empatheia' in Greek (pronounced EMPATHIA) means feeling envy and hatred towards something, wishing the worst for them.”

Drifts in meaning are interesting, but I had better not to speculate on how the same word in Greek shifted from meaning physical affection in ancient times, to envy and hatred today. I daresay that there is quite a lot of empathy being felt in Greece today. 

Another interesting meaning-shift is the word “silly”, which in early medieval times ("sely") meant innocent and pitiable, but which Chaucer manipulated to mean pitiful and ignorant in the Miller's Tale. What an interesting meaning-shift - from the innocent, to the ignorant, to the silly.

But, coming back to sympathy and empathy, there is clearly no point trying to alter the meanings of these words in modern English. But might it be interesting to think more about the idea of companionable fellow-feeling, and less about the mythical putting of oneself into the emotional state of a separate other, when it comes to the care of young children?