The Sympathy Sweepstakes
There’s a funny routine I once heard, where a father tells his son not to feel sorry for himself in the mornings because when he was a lad, he had to walk five miles to school each day. Not to be outdone, when the son grows up, he tells his son that he had to walk ten miles to school—all of it uphill. And the grandson, in turn, declares that he had to walk fifteen miles in the snow—without any shoes! And so on, each straining to outdo the others in the “poor me” department. Each one doing his level best to win the sympathy sweepstakes.
All humor aside, I’ve heard conversations among acquaintances of mine that don’t sound so very different…
“I woke up with a headache this morning.”
“You think that’s bad? I’ve been walking around with a gigantic headache for days!”
Or, “I just spent three hours in the kitchen. Oy, do my feet ache.”
“You think that’s something to complain about? I spent three days in the kitchen! My feet hurt so much afterward that I had to stay off them for a week!”
And so on. Everybody trying to emerge the winner in the sympathy sweepstakes… for what prize?
There are different words to describe what we elicit from listeners when we kvetch. They include pity, empathy, and sympathy. What follows is not the dictionary definition, but my own, subjective ones:
Pity is the thing that no one wants to be on the receiving end of. That’s because it implies a superiority of the giver over the receiver… As if, by being in a position to dispense pity, the giver is somehow on a loftier and more fortunate plane than the one receiving it. This attitude creates a distance between them. Pity, to my mind, is a cold word.
Empathy, however, elicits a sense of warmth. We empathize with another person when we can not only imagine, but have actually experienced, the pain that they are now experiencing. “I’ve either been in that boat, or I’m there with you right now,” our empathy tells them. This kind of message evokes a wonderful feeling of being seen. Understood. Cared for. Empathy is a warm word.
And then there’s sympathy. A synonym for that might be compassion. Sympathy is something which we shower on another when we are not in the same boat, but are able to muster caring feelings about the boat they are presently occupying. When we offer our sympathy, we are in effect saying, “I don’t know how you feel right now, because I’m not there. But I can imagine it. I can hear the anguish in your voice, and I can glimpse it in your eyes. In response, my heart is touched. I wish with all my heart that your situation improves very soon.”
As opposed to pity, that cold hand that the “Have” holds out to an unfortunate “Have Not,” and in contrast with empathy, with its implicit message of solidarity through mutual experience, sympathy is unique. Sympathy is all about bridging a gap. About lighting a fire to warm someone even when you are not personally feeling the cold. Ideally, it is a gift freely offered with no strings attached.
When sympathy is done right, it is as delicious as ice cream on a scorching summer’s day. A tonic that carries warmth through every vein in our body. A magical elixir.
But, like everything, the system can backfire. Our need for that delicious elixir can become addictive. We find ourselves saying whatever we need to say to get some more. We find ourselves groaning just a bit louder than necessary or throwing out heartrending complaints to anyone who’s likely to respond well. Instinctively, we shy away from the type of person who’s apt to respond with a tart “Enough kvetching already” or, even worse, “You think that’s bad? Listen to what happened to me!”
We are not at all interested, at that moment, in what happened to you. Right now, what we long for is our full share of that intoxicating drink called sympathy. We want to be warmed at the fires of your compassion, not have our problems compared, contrasted, or shoved aside. We want our pain to matter.
If you are ever in the position to overhear the kind of conversation in which everyone tries to outdo everyone else in the “poor me” department, your first inclination may be to condemn. Intent upon obtaining their sympathy fix, none of the kvetchers are really listening to what anyone else is saying. But perhaps condemnation is not in order. I forget who said it, but there’s a thought that goes something like this: “If someone asks you for something, he must really need it.” If someone seems to be soliciting your sympathy, she may really need it.
It’s not the sympathy itself that she craves; it’s the warmth, understanding, and caring that underlies it, the way paper currency is backed by solid gold. A person experiencing trouble often feels as if she’s standing out in the frigid wind, peering in at all the lucky ones sitting and laughing by the fireside. A sincere word of sympathy at the right moment can literally bring the sufferer out of the cold and into the circle of warmth. For a few minutes, at least, she is relieved of her burden. For a few seconds, she is not shivering and alone.
Again, there’s such a thing as becoming addicted to sympathy: a chronic complainer. An inveterate moaner. A confirmed kvetcher. In our desire for that soothing elixir called sympathy, we can overdo things to the point of becoming a self-pitying and decidedly unattractive whiner.
There is a definite virtue in not complaining. Something admirable, and even noble, in rising above our troubles and always wearing a smile. That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with soliciting a bit of sympathy from our friends and loved ones now and then. In fact, a good deal of the conversation that takes place between people, and especially between women, involves plenty of caring listening and a generous give-and-take of sympathy.
This was a reality largely responsible for the rising popularity of women’s magazines. Years ago, when I worked for Targum Press, we were on the cutting edge when we introduced the now-defunct Horizons, the first mass-produced magazine specifically designed for frum women. It was a quarterly, appearing only four times a year—but what a response it generated!
The outpouring of positive feedback reflected the need women have for sharing with other women, for hearing about their experiences and offering their own in turn. In an indirect but very real way, those pages, and those of today’s periodicals, became a source of the understanding and, yes, the sympathy that we all need.
Pity, that chilly commodity, can distance giver from receiver. Empathy calls for a specific commonality of experience.
But here’s something that we all know first-hand: the free exchange of genuine sympathy only brings us closer.