It’s easier to sympathise when you can empathise.
“Isn’t it terrible what happened over in…” somebody will start, and already you’ll be nodding. Terrible things happen every other day. Natural disasters, governmental oppression, and worst of all, deliberate massacres. We see them on the news, somewhere between the local stories and the weather, and that’s where we store them in our minds.
We sympathise. Isn’t it terrible. I disagree with this thing. It must be awful for those involved. It must be, we say, because we know that much but no more. We sympathise, and we go on with our lives and our smaller-scale problems.
When something terrible happens in your own immediate life, you don’t look for sympathy. Whatever this might mean on your own scale, you will have your own example. Let me go personal here for a moment to illustrate my point. My parents are separated, and not in an amicable way. It was turbulent while it was happening, and although statistically this is not an uncommon thing for a teenager to experience, at the time it felt like it was. Friends were sympathetic; of course they were. That must be awful is often what you hear, but it isn’t what you’re looking for. You actively try to not let it be widely known, so that you can avoid sympathy. Instead, I sought out those who understood. Those who had experienced it, and who could say “I know what you’re going through.” That’s it. That’s all you want. Is there a solution there? Has the situation changed in any way? No, of course not. I wasn’t looking for an answer; I knew that there was no such thing. All I wanted was to hear that somebody understood.
Why does this make such a big difference to us? Why do we, as people, need so much to feel like we’re not alone, even if that means inherently that bad things are also happening to other people? I don’t have the answer to this. All I can say is that it’s clear to any of us that “I know what you’re going through” feels stronger than “I think that’s terrible.”
Allow me now to scale this up to those awful scenes that we see on the news. You see people. You see them going about their lives that are so different to yours. People that you’ve never met; people who your friends and your friends of friends have never met. You see those lives that you don’t fully understand, and you see them end. You see them threatened, and destroyed.
That must be terrible.
Then, on a Friday evening, you turn on the news again. You see people. You see them living the same lives that you live. You see them attending a match you might have gone to. You see them eat at a restaurant that you might have enjoyed. You see them go to a concert that was on in your home city just three nights prior. You see these lives threatened and destroyed. Chaos. Visceral. You’re scanning the faces for one you may know. Your brain is going a mile a minute trying to account for the whereabouts of your loved ones, and theirs.
You were in this city, you’ve been there once, twice, three times in your life. You were there two months ago. Your friend is going there two months from now. Your friend’s brother is there. Your friend’s friend lives there. It’s not over. You’re now fearing for your own. If this can happen so close, it can happen even closer. If this can happen there, it can happen here. You no longer need to hypothesise.
This is terrible.
Now, people begin to criticise. Accusations fly. You weren’t so outraged when it happened to another place, farther away. Somewhere you’ve never been. All I can say to that, is that we are only capable of so much understanding. No one person can put themselves into every pair of shoes, and thank goodness for that. I wouldn’t want to understand what it’s like. I wouldn’t wish that understanding on anybody. Realising what this does, seeing people describe these things in such a way that fits neatly into your own lived experience is simply harrowing.
An attack on your own way of life is rattling. It has to be. It’s all your brain knows. You feel personally threatened, and that is more of a motivator than any amount of sympathetic thought could ever be.
So what is the upside here? It’s hard to see one. We are all stunned, and increasingly frightened. What can we do? What can any of us do?
Important here is not to blame one another for finally empathising. If your friend’s parents split up later on in life and they come to you saying that it’s awful and they don’t know what to do, do you chastise them for not understanding back when it happened to you? Of course you don’t.
You pick your friend up. You tell them you wish it didn’t happen to them.
You tell them that you understand.