Dirty Word

those who feelthe breath of sadnesssit

I’ve been around the traps a bit and it hasn’t failed to escape me that there are some words that will always draw a gasp of horror from people steeped in political correctness.  We get very hot under the collar about words that ‘otherise’ us.  Words that convey a position of lesser.  Words that are limiting rather than edifying.  One of those words is barely tolerated by most in the disability and chronic illness crowd.   I think it is much maligned and I don’t want us to lose it. Although many might disagree, in my opinion, it’s a wonderful word: sympathy.

I think I understand why sympathy has become such a dirty word. I think it is because we equate the word with pity, which is so unempowering.  But that is not all that sympathy is or can be. And I want to talk about that because in reality, empathy (the somehow more legitimate big sister of sympathy) is not always possible for people to find. Sometimes, empathy is asking more of people than I think is realistic.  It would fix all the world’s problems if we could all have empathy for one another based solely on our shared realities of the human condition.  But that seems outside of the reach of so many.  Limited life experiences, moralities, ethics, different values.  Not all of us can empathise.
Yet sympathy in the form of pity is not useful or welcome. There are forms of sympathy, however, that deserve a break.

So let’s look at that dirty little word:

sympathy |ˈsɪmpəθi| noun (pl.sympathies) [ mass noun ] 1 feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune: they had great sympathy for the flood victims. • (one's sympathies) formal expression of such feelings; condolences: all Tony's friends joined in sending their sympathies to his widow Jean. 2 understanding between people; common feeling: the special sympathy between the two boys was obvious to all. • (sympathies) support in the form of shared feelings or opinions: his sympathies lay with his constituents. • agreement with or approval of an opinion or aim; a favourable attitude: I have some sympathy for this view. • (in sympathy) relating harmoniously to something else; in keeping: repairs had to be in sympathy with the original structure. 3 the state or fact of responding in a way similar or corresponding to an action elsewhere: the magnetic field oscillates in sympathy. ORIGIN late 16th cent. (in sense 3): via Latin from Greek sumpatheia, from sumpathēs, from sun- ‘with’ + pathos ‘feeling’.

Sympathy For

So others might be feeling pity and sorrow for your situation. So what?  There will always be people who consider themselves to be more fortunate than you regardless of individual circumstances.  And since when could we control the feelings of others? Never. People will feel what they feel and it is always more about their lens than anything else, they are making sense of their world.  That is the nature of the human condition.

I grew up in a third world country and it was natural for me, with my Western Cultural Lens, to compare my privileged existence with people living in poverty. I had enormous sympathy for the children in the squatter settlement behind my home. But saying “Poor you!  Look at that malnourished belly!  I don’t know how you can live in this squalor!” …would have said a lot more about me than about them. Would it have helped them to know I felt sorry for them?  No. It would simply have been an offloading of my own discomfort. Living in poverty does not necessarily mean that all aspects of those children’s lives were impoverished, but we find it hard to see that from our imperialistic point of view. Pity is a comparison to examine; think about, keep to yourself.  I don’t feel the same way about sorrow.

When people express pity to the person they are comparing themselves to, it is a redundant, personal statement.  There are a plethora of awful videos going around the internet at the moment, where young people are showcasing their generosity to homeless people. It makes me sick. Being generous to homeless people does not make me sick, but videoing it and seeking adulation for that act is so self-serving and the very opposite to generous. Not to mention that they have ‘used’ people for their own fame. I doubt if they returned to that person.  So I guess what I am saying, is that having sympathy for a person is a natural response. But voicing pity towards them is obnoxious.  You might be rolling your eyes right now and thinking ‘that’s a bit precious, how am I supposed to express sympathy if it is not by saying it?’

Sympathy With

Having sympathy with something (as opposed to for someone) is sharing an opinion or feeling about an issue.  In the manner of, I have some sympathy with that person’s stance.  It’s where the word ‘sympatico’ comes from.  It’s beautiful.  Thinking along the same lines as someone else produces such solidarity. It is the life-force behind democracy.  The collective feeling of many, or just two. It’s falling in step with someone else’s mind and beating out the rhythm in perfect cohesion. I love sympatico. It’s a big reason why for me, sympathy is not a dirty word.  To have sympathy with an idea is the beginning of social change or the turn of a conversation or the joy of friendship.  It’s how an idea gains traction.  It’s an indirect way to develop sympathy for a person, by becoming engaged in the issues that effect them and the thinking that moves them.

That’s how.

Sympathy In

Lately I’ve been listening to a band I had never heard before.  It was introduced to me by a friend of mine I have met through the Be.Accessible Leadership Programme. Since he lent me the CD, it’s been playing in my car every time I’m in it. There are lots of songs from the CD that are growing on me, but one in particular that I loved from the outset.  The band is James and the album is Gold Mother.  The song is ‘Sit Down’ and I’ve pasted the lyrics below.  I record them here because this song, to me, embodies all the things about sympathy that I don’t think we should ever let slip from the vernacular of our patient groups, our social gatherings, our together times.  I sat next to that friend at the Zoo the other day, feeling an array of things.  I admire him, I feel for him, I think that in some matters I understand him. I sat there, in the kind of freedom that you experience when you are with someone who has travelled terrain a bit like your own. There are things that don’t need explaining. That is a rare thing, and one of the most perfect expressions of sympathy; the kind you never need express.

So have a read, have a listen.

And tell me… what do you think of these things?

How do you feel about sympathy?

Sit Down. 
By James.

I’ll sing myself to sleep
A song from the darkest hour
Secrets I can’t keep
Inside of the day
Swing from high to deep
Extremes of sweet and sour
Hope that God exists
I hope, I pray

Drawn by the undertow
My life is out of control
I believe this wave will bear my weight
So let it flow

Oh, sit down
Sit down next to me
Sit down, down, down, down, down
In sympathy

Now I’m relieved to hear
That you’ve been to some far out places
It’s hard to carry on
When you feel all alone
Now I’ve swung back down again
It’s worse than it was before
If I hadn’t seen such riches
I could live with being poor

Oh, sit down
Sit down next to me
Sit down, down, down, down, down
In sympathy

Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they’re touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me
Love, in fear, in hate, in tears

Down
Down
Oh, sit down

Sit down next to me
Sit down, down, down, down, down
In sympathy

8 thoughts on “Dirty Word”

  1. This post is one of my many favourites of yours Rach! I think your exploration & depiction of the many faces of sympathy is something everyone in the chronic illness and wider community needs to read. I will now remember the beauty of sympatico thanks to you x

  2. I love this. Sometimes empathy is impossible- one example that springs to mind for me is people who have lost a child. I could never claim to understand how that must feel but I do feel sympathy, not its patronizing cousin pity, for parents who pull themselves through life after such an unthinkable tragedy. Thank you so much for explaining. Simpatico is a seriously great word too.

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