March 29, 2007

Sympathy

Over the last few weeks, my inspiration seems to come off the internet. More and more the people that I talk to and meet over the net are engaging me in meritorious conversations that bring out thoughts that lead to posts. This is one of them.

There was this general discussion, during which a topic came up which I had not given much thought about before. Even though I have not thought about this before, it appealed to me and here I am trying to put my thoughts into words. The topic of discussion is Sympathy.

Why is it that when we are at a signal we feel a sense of sympathy seeing the wrinkled woman carrying a crying baby asking for alms? Why is it that when we are travelling by an air-conditioned car in the sweltering heat, we feel sympathy seeing a person pedaling a cycle? Why do we feel sympathy when we some one or something that is not in the same place as we are?

The only reason is that we are better of than they are. The reason that I say this is because unless one is in a superior position, there can be no sympathy.

Imagine you and me are two beggars on the side of the road. The reason I am taking two beggars is that they are almost on the same standing in life. As long as we both have not received any alms, we will not feel sympathy towards each other. Once one of the beggars gets a small penny, he will begin to feel that sympathy towards the other beggar. Again once the second beggar too gets a penny, the sympathy will vanish and the competition will take over.

So is it not possible for a person who is not in a better of position to sympathize with some one who is in a better standing?

The answer is no. the standing here is not just monetary; it can be moral, physical, psychological, it can be anything. It can be from who has the most beautiful wife, to who is the strongest, from who has had more girlfriends to who has not, from who is the best in academics to who is the best in sports. It is across domains.

Sympathy, I feel,
When I am better off
Than what you are
The basis of my sympathy
Is my superiority
The basis of my sympathy
Is I am better than you are.

25 comments:

Rajaraman said...

Between two equals, can this be called empathy?
VRajaraman

Rajaraman said...

On second thoughts I feel that I should diifer with you. Even among equals there can a feeling of sympathy. Sympathising does not necessarily mean giving something to him. It is an expression of comraderie, expression of sensitivity being with the that person in the time of his trauma. That is all. for that purposewe need not think if he is equal or superior or inferior.
Even a superior person is in an unenviable position with a lot of difficulties we do sympathis with him
We may not help him but we can express our sympathies to him

Suchi said...

The train of thought is reminiscent of the concept of entropy...you cannot transfer heat from a colder body to a hotter one naturally.

I spoke a lot abt sympathy in dat post of mine...but one point is highly relevent. There are a lot of people who WANT sympathy, they cry for it. And then there are people who make it their life's motive to give sympathy, usually with very noble motives. Mostly, both these people are the same people. The question of whether the sympathy will be welcome is not considered.

Suchi said...

@Comment above
"Sympathising does not necessarily mean giving something to him. It is an expression of comraderie, expression of sensitivity being with the that person in the time of his trauma"

Frankly, when I have a loss so irrepairable, of what use is an empty 'chee...paavam'? A fact reminding me that I have friends? The intention is well received...you want me to feel better. But there's always the fact that I won't actually need sympathy or support, and that the intrusion itself may be unwelcome.

Lazy Lavender said...

My first reaction to the post - "Exactly!!!"
The feeling of sympathy arises only when we think we're better of than the other person. I would have used the same words if someone had asked me- "Superior".
And that means I contradict with the first two comments. Regarding the first, empathy is when you put yourself in the other person's shoes, when you imagine yourself in the other person's position. You may either be happy for them, or feel sorry. The sorry part falls under sympathy.
Regarding the second comment, the term superior or inferior holds not just for the attitude we have, but also the situation involved. In the case of a trauma, we may sympathize with the person because he's caught in a position which gives trouble, when we're sure it won't affect us. Even in case people are caught in the same mess, sympathy will be created on the one with more loss. Feeling and understanding, or helping, all need a difference in the positions for sympathy creation.
Regarding the third post, comparison with entropy is cool! Well, as a faithful electronics student, I'd have the comparison with electric fields. Current flows through the circuit only if there's a difference in the potential levels. ;)
And about those people who try creating sympathy for themselves, I just can't understand + stand them. For the same reasons, why would one want to show himself as something lesser than the other? In case they're into some trouble, they should try to come out of it on their own, or seek suggestions from the experienced ones. But self- and outside pity?? How does it help?? Self pity is one of the worst mistakes one can do to oneself.
In fact, when I think about it, I'd say feeling sympathy for others is not one of those "goody-goody" virtues society expects one to have. It's just a mild dose of a feeling of superiority, and in some cases, extending a lending hand to the other. Maybe addition of the helping tendency makes feeling superior a virtue under society's norms. Huh!

Rajaraman said...

My child
This reflects a cynical attitude.
Even a genuine concern should not be construed as a felling of superiority. May be at that point of time one may be better off. He also might have had a simailar experiance or hour of trial of helplessness. So he may be trying to sympathise with him and trying to help him out in the hour of trial should not be brushed off as an instance of showing one"s superiority.He may be even willng to come forward and help out physically emotionally and financially
Take for example a site of accident where people gatgher and try to help people out of sympathy for the injured.Does it mean showing the feeling of superiority.
This is out of genuine concern for fellow humans.
There is a hue and cry in Karnatak for killing Stray dogs.Is it outof feeling of supriority over the dogs.
It is more out of concern for another leaving creature .


This is my view.

Lazy Lavender said...

Uncle, I'm not being cynical. Am not sure if I can communicate my thoughts that well. Will give it a try though.
By superiority, I don't mean the word which we've been taught not to have, as children. In situations involving sympathy, there exists a comparison - not of who one is, but of where one is. The former is the Superiority that society abhors. I referred to the latter. One will feel sympathetic to his fellows when he's in a position to do so. It may be due to genuine concern and need not be to show off his superiority. It does not involve "The Superiority Complex", but does involve the feeling of being in a better position than the other.
In the same case of an accident, the people who gather there sympathise with the affected ones. Among those who are affected, the one with lesser injuries will sympathise with one who's got more of them. But the one with more injuries does not usually sympathise the one with lesser injuries. This is what I was trying to say, by calling it superiority.
When two people go through the same problems and have the same losses, and are in the same positions, there'd be a feeling of comradeship. They will help each other to get out of it, and it won't be sympathy which is acting.
A pauper may feel sympathetic for a millionaire because he's got worries in life. But that'll be because the pauper is better off than the millionaire when it comes to worrying. So it is not the monetary superiority alone. It could be financial or physical or psychological, depending on the situation. I believe sympathy requires a gradient for sure and am definitely not against showing sympathy to others in peril. :-)

Suchi said...

Sir,

In my humble opinion, sympathy stems, not from a feeling of superiority, but a perceived feeling that the other party is inferior.

About the accident scenario...there are so many people who congregate at the scene of an accident (or any morbid happening), basically DO nothing, but talk a lot. Their words may include words of sympathy, they may even feel sympathy, but the fact that they do nothing implies that their sympathy is meaningless. Rather than use the word superiority, I will say that the person who is suffereing is lowered in esteem in their eyes: he becomes weak, vulnerable, inferior. My superiority does not matter as much as his inferiority. That's where the sympathy comes from.

People who help out in such cases need not necessarily have sympathy.

maalolan said...

oki @ t blogger

I am raghuram , a new frd [:)]

Firstly CONGRATS ....tat was a wonderful post,but i guess i will contradict u in certain points

"Why is it that when we are at a signal we feel a sense of sympathy seeing the wrinkled woman carrying a crying baby asking for alms? "

one will sympathise ( or use watever word for the feeling that arise at tat moment in your heart ) in this scenario only for the first time you are in it . If u happen to cross the signal five times a week or if u trace the beggar woman and notice wat she does for an entire day , you wont get the feel anymore . now this is not sympathy

next " Imagine you and me are two beggars on the side of the road. The reason I am taking two beggars is that they are almost on the same standing in life. As long as we both have not received any alms, we will not feel sympathy towards each other. Once one of the beggars gets a small penny, he will begin to feel that sympathy towards the other beggar. Again once the second beggar too gets a penny, the sympathy will vanish and the competition will take over."

Here jealousy will arise first from the beggar(guy A) who hasnt received any alms before sympathy could arise in the heart of the guy who received alms(guy B ) .End of the day B would go silent if A would hav got sumting ( but lesser to wat he has made ). B will do the so called "sympathising" (which will be more of advising ) if A would go back home empty (still B convinces himself in his mind that A cud hav begged even more harder ...lazy chap he doesnt even care to open his mouth ...whoz gonna give him a penny in this century ...he should follow my way in the coming days )

so now watever A blabbers at the end of the day about the pitiable state of B is also not sympathy

i would like to tell a little more which i think will be better if i do it at the commentators also

maalolan said...

@ all

tat was a very nice discussion

i am not gud at puttin in wrds what i feel ...still i wud make a try

I am not convinced with the concept of being "superior" and inferior" . I will be convinced if the word superior is replaced by "troublefree" and inferior by "troubled".

@ rajaraman sir

"Sympathy is an expression of comraderie, expression of sensitivity being with the that person in the time of his trauma"

sympathy will arise only when u feel that the guy being sympathised is in no way the cause for the trauma happened ( a gud example will be the accident scenario )

Symapthy is the expression of feelin sorry only when u cant find one gud reason for the guy being sympathised being responsible for what has happened to him

If u can convince urself with one reason which make the "being sympathised" responsible for what has happened , then watever feel that comes outta you cant be taken as sympathy

In my view sympathy is sumtin which comes out spontaneously for which u can never give an explanation ...u just feel lik heling the guy and u cant put in a single arguement "why u shdnt be helpin the guy at tat moment "

u dont feel superior or inferior at the moment ...if u can do all tese compaiosns then watever u do after it cant be taken as sympathy

all that matters here is whether u r in a position to sympathise " which is being troublefree "

@ suchi's last comment

Sympathy can never be felt with someone whom u consider inferior ( i dunno hw to name such a feel )

maalolan said...

@ suchi

"Frankly, when I have a loss so irrepairable, of what use is an empty 'chee...paavam'? A fact reminding me that I have friends? The intention is well received...you want me to feel better. But there's always the fact that I won't actually need sympathy or support, and that the intrusion itself may be unwelcome."

the " chee paavam " feel is not true sympathy

when u feel someone's sympathy as intrusion , then u are not in a situation to be sympathised ...LOL

Lazy Lavender said...

@Suchi
People who help out in such cases need not necessarily have sympathy. - I totally agree.
My superiority does not matter as much as his inferiority. By Inferiority, do you mean his helplessness? or say weakness?
In the accident scenario, the affected person is weak, vulnerable, yes, but physically. What is there to lower his esteem in it?
When we pity someone just for who he/she is, then their esteem is lowered. I don't see why someone's esteem gets lowered if they're into some peril for no fault of theirs.

@Raghu/Maalolan
The words superior and inferior can be replaced by less affected and more affected, respectively.
And regarding your comment about the affected person being responsible for his plight; I personally don't agree to it.
Take the case of a drunken driver meeting with an accident. He is responsible for the mishap, yes. But because of that, would you just stand there, mutter a couple of swear words at him and just no feel anything? I would first be enraged, but will pity him inside. Pity him because he was not careful; because his sense failed him; because there was something in his life that made him lose control. I won't take it too far. I'll feel sorry for him because he's a pitiable fool. But in this case, as Suchi said, he loses his esteem or respect for that matter.
Feeling or accepting sympathy is one's own choice. I don't agree with- when u feel someone's sympathy as intrusion , then u are not in a situation to be sympathised. We're not to judge the situation here. The person involved may just be self-confident and strong-willed, that he thinks the doesn't need any sympathy or help from others. I believe that is what Suchi meant by saying- But there's always the fact that I won't actually need sympathy or support, and that the intrusion itself may be unwelcome.

maalolan said...

@ lazy lavendar

i will surely help the drunken guy who met with the accident...... tats humanity

and i will also help the guy who was hit by this drunkard to hospital ...this also is humanity

but wen the drunkard dies in the hospital i don feel sorry ....if the guy hit by the drunkard dies in the hospital i ll really feel sorry ....nw tis is sympathy

i experienced this in my own life. 2 guys wer dead in an accident. one was responsible for his fate.
the other met wit it while trying to help the first one. wen i heard abt this ....thou i was sry abt both of tem , my heart really felt sad abt the second guy ...i dunno y ...and this feel is what i call sympathy

@ all

Opinion differs from person to person . i penned down whateve i felt ...pardon me if i hav hurted any1 in any of my contradictions

Suchi said...

@Raghuram,
"when u feel someone's sympathy as intrusion , then u are not in a situation to be sympathised "

Not necessarily, in my opinion. I, for one, would probably go to someone for help, but not expect sympathy. I believe sympathy is something that insults you. Abt the superior-inferior thing, the sympaqthy comes, more because the giver things the receiver is inferior (that is, more affected) compared to him. It is not the superiority that plays a role as much as the inferiority.

@Lazy Lavender (wish I knew your name!)

About the drunken driver scenario, if the drunk driver is the only person that dies, or is affected in some way, I would pity his state of life, and not him. If there is someone else that is caught in such an accident and dies, I don't know not what I would think. Not pity or sympathy, but a kind of rage at the fact that I am not able to explain why a person who was in no wasy responsible died, because someone else was irresponsible. I would probably feel pity for the family of the affected party, rather than feel pity for the dead one.

Obviously, we are all different, and what we think needs to be different. There is nothing to apoligize for here, as far as I am concerned. It is a great discussion though, kudos to Aditya for providing the space and impetus for such a discussion.

Rajaraman said...

my comment was not against any particular comment by any particular individual. It was more a general comment on the feeing of superiority/ inferiority mentioned in the post itself
.so no one need to get hurt or offended or fewel sorry and no need for any apologies.
Second
I wish to open up another angle.
I have heard many people saying I dont want to be synpathised with or I dont want any one's symapthies.
To which category they belong superior inferior on individualist or arrogant, self made, self possessed or someone who thinks all by themselve or is it bravado
Let us discuss

Naren said...

Concern for human suffering is mostly an evolutionary trait and rationalizing it wouldn't serve any purpose!

Lazy Lavender said...

@ Naren, I don't know about evolutionary traits. But to me, the above comments were more of a discussion between people who have different views about the trait. I don't see any attempt to rationalize sympathy.

Regarding those who deny sympathy from others, I'd call them superior, headstrong, self-made people, who do think by themselves. I would not associate arrogance to such a kind.

Aditya said...

Since it is a well-established fact that Mr. Rajaraman is the reason that I am Aditya Rajaraman, I will address him by the title my birth bestowed upon him.
In addition, I shall deal person by person. That way I get to answer the issues raised by each person separately and I get to put my views on the entire conversation on the table.
@ Dad,
Empathy cannot be compared with sympathy. When we empathize with someone we are not feeling for them, we are feeling with them. We realize the position they are in. That is all we do. We do not get the emotion that we need to do something to alleviate the state they are in. one can empathize if they are in a better or even if they are in a worse position.

When you give the example “Even a superior person is in an unenviable position with a lot of difficulties we do sympathize with him”, what you are saying is that they are superior in terms of one facet like position or authority. When they are in a situation where you sympathize with them, it means that for that one situation you are in a better position than they are. If for example, they have suffered a personal loss and you sympathize with them you do it because you have not suffered that same loss. When you empathize in the same situation, all you do is you know how it is they feel. This may be because you have been in a similar situation before. All you say is I am sorry for what happened. I know how you feel. There is no sympathy here.

I am not saying that a person can never be concerned without being in a superior position. Concern is again different from sympathy. Concern is the desire for the well-being for others; with sympathy, on the other hand there is not desire for the well being at all. It is more of an emotion that comes with what the person who is the target of that emotion is experiencing now.

Your example of the accident is not a situation of sympathy, it one of human concern. The clamor in Karnataka is due to again concern of man towards other animals. It is not sympathy. There is a slight tint of sympathy in that case as one man will never make another man endure what he is making that dog endure. That is because man as a species is better off than the dog.

I like what you have brought out when you say that one says that they do not want to be sympathized with. All they are saying is “do not give me an emotion that you do not mean. Do not give me an emotion that makes you feel better about yourself. Do not give me an emotion that will make me hate what I am.” This is neither arrogance, nor superiority or inferiority. It is just to say that, “I have enough self respect not to feel bad about my state. I will not rub your ego at the expense of mine.”

Aditya said...

@Suchitra
Again, in entropy, heat can be transferred from a cold body to a hot one by expending enormous amounts of energy external to both the bodies. Similarly, it is true in this case too. That is the force required.

The people who need sympathy are those who have lived a life in which they have never defined themselves in their own eyes. Others have defined them and that is the only way that they know to live. Those who crave for sympathy need it not because they are in a bad situation, it gives them the recognition that someone out there is looking out at them. It is more of a method to make sure that they are able to prove to themselves that they are not alone in the world. This is significantly apart from the ones that give it. The ones that crave it can never give it. To give it one needs a large ego and for the ones that crave for it, this ego does not exist.

A “chee paavam” is more than just an empty shell. The word “chee” itself is to mean derogatory. It is used to signify something that is below us.

The intention that you are talking about is not sympathy; it is concern.

If a person at an accident scene does nothing to help and is just an onlooker, he is inhuman. They do not sympathize with that person. Any talk that they may have is one of concern. There is no way that superiority comes into the picture at that point of time. It may come in only when the accident causes some injury or damage, physiological, emotional, or monetary.

I agree when you say that I can do with concern and not sympathy. In addition, I accept that sympathy is an insult. That insult is not personal; it is towards my ego, which makes it even more damaging.

Aditya said...

@Sindhuja
How can it be that when one feel sorry it automatically falls into sympathy?
When I feel sorry for someone, I am not saying that I feel sorry because I am in a better position than you are. All I am saying is that I know what you are going through and I would not like you to suffer in that situation. This is coming out of two things – my concern and my empathy.

Again, when it does not affect us? All the three, concern, sympathy and empathy are in cases when the giver of the three is not likely to be affected to the same degree as the person who is the target. When I am in an accident with a friend, I am concerned what happened to him. This concern shall come up only when I am sure that I am no more in harm’s way.

I can see that you have understood when I said “Superiority”.

Aditya said...

@Maalolan/Raghuram
Well I did never talk about the fact that sympathy will die out with prolonged exposure to the stimulus causing that emotion. It is natural. It is like economics. The first time I take ice cream, it gives a lot of satisfaction. Each consecutive time, the amount of satisfaction I derive from it will decrease until it plateaus. Similarly, the first time I sympathize with that beggar, my ego gets a boost. Each consecutive time the amount of boost I get will reduce will there is no difference and then I will start ignoring her.

The beggar scenario is well illustrated. I guess that sympathy is again dependent on the amount that you know a person. The concern I show my best friend will never be sympathy. However, it is possible that I will become sympathetic to some person who is not that close.

I do accept that may be inferior and superior are too hard a word to use. However, they are the words that come closest to what it is that I wanted to convey. This, as Sindhuja pointed out is not in monetary, moral, physical, or authority wise, but it is situational.

Sympathy can even be felt when the person who is “troubled” is responsible. Then we are sympathetic to the ignorance and stupidity of that person. This will come about when we know that given the same set of conditions, we would have never done what he did; we are smarter and more knowledgeable.

If you want to help someone who is in trouble, be my guest. In fact, I commend both your intentions and the actions that follow. The only thing that I ask is to be sure why you are doing it. Stop telling yourself that you are doing it for that person. Realize that the only reason that you are doing it is because at the end of the action, you as a person will feel better, because the need of yours to help others in trouble is satisfied.

Regarding your comment at Suchitra, “Sympathy can never be felt with someone whom u consider inferior (I don’t know how to name such a feeling)”, I can be of assistance. If you consider anyone inferior, you are branding him or her. You are taking up a position based on your knowledge of that person and their qualities. The very fact that one considers that person inferior, ipso facto, one considers oneself superior, shows how egoistic one is. It shows how bloated beyond belief their concept of self is.

Taking your example of the drunken issue, I am not saying what you are feeling is wrong. It is what you are feeling and in the end of the day I guess that one has a reason, however incomprehensible, behind everything that they do.

Can it be that you felt bad because you were not involved? Can it be that you were not sympathizing, but were angry over the fact that an innocent person is dead by an incident caused by the drunkenness of another person? Can it be that you are mistaking anger and angst to be sympathy? Can it be that you are mistaking the basic human nature of caring for others welfare as sympathy? Can it be that your rationality accepts that the person who was drunk deserved to die, if he were responsible for an accident, and it is questioning why should a person who is not responsible for the accident have to die?

This is a blog and not an argument, there are no feelings hurt. If one is commenting on this blog they are doing it because they ahev something to say. No emotions involved, Just thoughts.

Aditya said...

@Naren
We are not rationalizing the concern for human concern. I can accept the fact that it came from a need to protect the clan, there by protect oneself. What I am trying to rationalize is that somewhere down the line, which concern was mixed up. Rather, the cause for that concern got mixed up.

Swaroop Bhushan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Swaroop Bhushan said...

Interesting lines of thought. But I wish you would have defined your understanding of a "better standing".

Americans who haven't traveled to India sympathize with people in India. Initially its revulsion about the poverty, crime, conditions of life etc which soon transitions into sympathy. However Americans who travel to India and return meet up and say they had a "revealing" experience. Now these Americans sympathize those who haven't traveled to India.

As an aside, elders in India regularly sympathize with the west in the name of cultural and traditional superiority.

Is sympathy just a way to make yourself feel better and convince yourself of a pseudo "better standing"?

aditya said...

@ Swaroop
First of all, welcome. Nice having you on board
Coming to your comment.
To begin with, better standing is not defined in general, for the definition is a perceived better. It is like saying, "I am better than you are", while actually what you are saying is, "If we COMPARE the things that we possess, I believe that in my opinion, I am better than you are."
Sympathy is just an ego boost, just a way of telling yourself that your lot in the world is not as bad as that of some other's. In the end, it is a support system that our psyche builds to make sure that we do not fall on our faces.