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On sympathy, empathy and action

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 8 July 2019


This is the last of a series of essays dealing with some social issues that emerge again and again in our society, not just Australia's but in the 'developed' Western world. Concepts like sympathy and empathy are built into other concepts like 'poverty', 'inequality' and 'care'. Indeed our whole social welfare system, the details of our education system, and the mammoth public health services, constantly growing, make no sense unless there are real meanings for sympathy and empathy, and the action following these sentiments.

In 1958, my History Honours year, I studied a difficult book, The Idea of History, by the historian/philosopher R. G. Collingwood. One of his principal ideas, at least as I remember it, was that a serious scholar who used rigorous thinking in his approach to a historical event could arrive at the same thought as the author of the original thought, and thereby re-enact it. He gave as one example Caesar's rumination on whether to cross the Rubicon River. If we studied all the sources, and followed good reasoning, we would not only arrive at Caesar's decision, but we would understand by entering his mind. I found this unlikely and somewhat spooky. Our teacher, a very nice man indeed, explained to us that this was an example of 'empathy'. And that was the first time I had come across the word.

Sympathy and empathy both come from the Greek, sympathy from 'syn' and 'pathy', literally 'feeling together' or 'fellow feeling', while empathy's first syllable comes from the Greek for 'in', so if you have it you are 'feeling in' to another's need, distress or decision point, as in the Caesar example. The two words are now used almost interchangeably, which is a pity, and both are used much more frequently than they were fifty years ago. I give all this background because I am sometimes accused of a lack of sympathy for the poor, the disadvantaged and the disabled, an accusation that I reject. The missing element in the accusation is the other concept of 'action'. There are quite a few who seem to think that sympathy must inevitably lead to action. In my view it doesn't need to do so at all.

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What action one engages in must depend first on how close you are to the afflicted person, and how able you are to help. If I give personal examples they are not intended to signal my own virtue but to provide real examples of a range of contexts in which one acts. Although we are more likely to act where the afflicted person or persons are close to us, my first example is in the other direction altogether. At the end of 2004 a massive earthquake (9.1) struck underneath the Indian Ocean near Indonesia. Nearly a quarter of a million people in fourteen countries died in consequence. The Red Cross, to which we customarily gave little amounts at various times, asked for real support from Australians, and it came in the millions. My wife and I gave a thousand dollars, the largest sum we had ever donated to a disaster-relief effort. Why? The scale was so vast, and the images so disturbing, that we felt a need to give generously.

The 'generously' was in respect of our means: we were both retired, and our real income was declining every year. No matter. We felt better for giving, and received a grateful response from the Red Cross. That did not make us donate to other, later, disaster-relief projects. We donate between three and five per cent of our income to charities, and yes, I do claim the tax relief to which I am entitled. As any fund-raiser will tell you, giving can easily become a habit, especially when you sign up for a direct debit from your bank account. We support about eight charities, and they include the Smith Family, the Red Cross, UNHCR, Canteen, and a couple that have a more local relevance. Our largest donation, which we have made for the past twelve years, is to the Canberra international Music Festival, of which I was the President for ten years or so.

The next example is not about money at all. Where we live I sit at the dining table close to a man in his nineties, who has difficulty in feeding himself, and difficulty in speaking. I help him by interpreting to the carers and by providing food or drink for him where I think that is what he would like me to do. I have to be careful, because he is also conscious of his need to do as much himself as he can. So it's a learning process, and I don't always get it right. Still, I think he appreciates what I do, and we get along well. Why do I do it? Well, I have both sympathy and empathy for him. He is probably ten years older than me, and I might be in his shoes a decade from now, if I live so long. I would wish that someone would then help me, as I help him now.

Another form of giving is time and energy, through voluntary work. We have both done a lot of that, as in the CIMF example I gave above, and in road safety, where I was the Chairman of the Road Safety Trust for fifteen years. As with donations, once you accept these roles, they are likely to stick with you for a long time. Why do them? In the music case, music is one of the three important factors in my life (the other two being satisfying work and reciprocated love). In the road safety case, the Minister asked me to accept the role, and you don't turn Ministers down easily. My wife acted as the secretary of the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance, and served on a couple of other community organisation boards.

There are thousands of community organisations, and Australia may still lead the world in the proportion of citizens who join them: according to Gittins and Tiffen (How Australia Compares) in 2004, we led the world then. There are also thousands of distressed people, and others to whom disasters like house fires have occurred. I feel sympathy for them all, but usually not empathy. We do what we can, and are always conscious that our means are limited, and that both of us are likely to have some large medical expenses in the years ahead.

What we don't do is to express sympathy and call on governments to act. Governments already do a huge amount in dealing with disasters and disabilities. If you belong to a community organisation then you'll probably find it lobbying for (more) public funding, especially in the health area. But you'll also be putting your time and energy into its activities. I can live with that. What irritates me are the people who express sympathy but do nothing else. They use the great Australian phrase "Aorta" as in "Aorta do this, and Aorta do that", but don't do anything themselves. There are around fifteen million adults in Australia, and if they all did a little things would be a lot better. For there is always something people can do, if they are at all empathetic. Calvin Coolidge, 30thPresident of the USA, said "We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once". It's a good motto.

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But do something, whatever it is, don't just talk about it and complain.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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