How often are you intentional about your empathy, sympathy, and compassion?

Today is September 29 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you intentional about your empathy, sympathy, and compassion?” American writer James Baldwin wrote “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

This connection, however, involves the three closely related, yet distinct, emotional attributes of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Since navigating the chaos requires us to interact with people, it would be helpful if you understand how intentional you were in your use of each emotion.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” and is relatively new since it has been in circulation for the last 70 years or so. Common examples include empathizing with someone when they lose their job, experience the death of a loved one, or deal with the breakup of a romantic relationship. Do note, however, empathy can also involve happy occasions such as the announcement that a woman is pregnant, someone received a new job offer, or a couple got engaged.

Sympathy, however, has a different implication and stems from Latin sympathia meaning "community of feeling, sympathy." Sympathy involves recognizing, respecting, and acknowledging the feelings of others, not feeling another person’s feelings as is the case with empathy. One of the most common examples of an expression of sympathy is a message towards a friend when one of their loved ones dies. We extend sympathy messages to those we love when we want to acknowledge their feelings or experience.

Compassion is action based and involves feeling the pain of someone else (empathy), recognizing the pain (sympathy) and then taking the steps, no matter how small, to help alleviate the pain (compassion). The literal interpretation of the word means compassion is "a suffering with another.” Two examples of compassion are when you help someone arrange the funeral of a deceased loved one or when you bring food to a neighbor’s home when they are sick.

Award winning director Martin Scorsese made the classic film Raging Bull based on his empathy towards the subject, boxer Jake LaMotta. It stars Robert De Niro as LaMotta, an Italian American middleweight boxer whose self-destructive and obsessive rage, sexual jealousy, and animalistic appetite destroyed his relationship with his wife and family.

Scorsese was disinterested in the project when DeNiro brought the story to the director’s attention but changed his mind after a serious illness helped him empathize with LaMotta’s character. While attending the 1978 Telluride Film Festival in the Colorado Rockies, Scorsese collapsed. Immediately on his return to New York he collapsed again and was taken to a hospital, bleeding from every orifice. His condition was life-threatening and doctors told him that he had no platelets in his blood, the result of an interaction between his asthma medicines and other prescription drugs.

They told him that he was in imminent danger of a brain hemorrhage. They pumped him full of cortisone and ordered total bed rest. In time, he began to recover, at which point De Niro visited him in the hospital. Like La Motta, Scorsese had touched bottom, and the actor judged his friend was ready to hear yet another pitch for Raging Bull. He was right. “I couldn’t understand Bob’s obsession with it, until, finally, I went through that rough period of my own,” Scorsese recalls. Scorsese demonstrated empathy towards LaMotta and wound up making one of film’s greatest productions.

As Sam Tetrault wrote in a March 2020 blog post “Empathy, sympathy, and compassion bring us closer as humans, and they’re the greatest connectors we know of. Think of compassion as the bridge between both emotions and actions, whereas empathy lets us walk in the shoes of others. While sympathy might only be reserved for sad situations, it reminds us that we are not alone. All of these words (and the meanings behind them) play a huge role in the human experience.”

As you travel the path of navigating the chaos today, reflect upon how often you are intentional with each one.