Book – Wyrd Allies: Sympathy And Empathy

After the rough ride of the past two sections, you probably feel in need of a little sympathy – or is it empathy? Whichever it is, it’s time to turn our attention to these two strange sentiments: because they’re our primary links with the wyrd – and with each other.

Sharing the passions

A common sense, a shared passion – that’s literally what ‘sympathy’ means, though in practice it also has a few weird twists and turns of its own. We echo each other, through the wyrd; or perhaps the same weird threads echo themselves as they weave their way through each of us – there’s no way to tell which way it really goes.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this weird concept of sympathy would be through a classic science experiment. Tie a length of strong cotton or fishing-line horizontally across a small open space – between two chair-legs, for example. Then make up two small pendulums, each with a short length of line – two to four inches or so – and a small weight such as a sinker or a cotton-reel. Tie one of these pendulums onto a point about one-third the way along the horizontal line; tie the other one on about two-thirds the way along, but do it such that you can change the vertical length of the pendulum. Start off with one line longer than the other, so that the whole contraption should look something like this:

[[graphic: double-pendulum]]

Start one of the pendulums swinging; quite quickly, the other one will start swinging too, and try to follow the first – after a fashion. Stop them moving, change the adjustable pendulum so that both vertical lines are about the same length, and then start one of them swinging again; this time the second pendulum will start playing ‘copycat’ almost immediately – moving ‘in sympathy’ with the first. After a while, though – depending on how much the pendulum lengths differ – the two will move ‘out of sympathy’, sometimes getting in each others’ way, sometimes speeding things up, so that the whole line can be jumping about. And if you start the two pendulums off at the same time, but from opposite directions, they’ll quickly come to a complete stop: perfectly in sympathy with each other, but in opposite phase – from opposite points of view, so to speak – they’ll exactly cancel each other out.

But there’s no way to tell, in any of these interactions, which pendulum really ’caused’ the other to move, or to stop: the ‘sympathy’ is in the relationship between them, rather than in the objects themselves. Yet that’s how radio transmissions work; that’s how sound travels, by creating a ‘resonance’ of vibrations in the air; and sub-atomic particles can play even weirder games, interacting with each other apparently outside of the ‘normal’ confines of space and time.

So too, perhaps, with us. With whom do you ‘resonate’? (For that matter, with what do you ‘resonate’ – such as your car or your cat, perhaps?) What are the ‘vibes’ that weave you together? What are those shared sights and sounds and feelings that move you?

When you’ve been perfectly ‘in sync’ with someone else for a while, and it suddenly stops, what happens? In what ways do you then try to control the situation – either your own behaviour, the other person’s, or the relationship as a whole – to try to force it back into that sense of sympathy? How hard is it for you to accept that these changes, unsettling as they always are, arise from the weird nature of relationship itself – and that everything, in that sense, is just a passing phase?

Sympathy is not only weird in itself: it is the wyrd – or at least the way in which we most directly experience it. Through sympathy, and its close cousin, empathy, we can know that we share this world with others. ‘We’ only exists because of sympathy – in some ways exists only when there is sympathy, when the interweaving threads of wyrd resonate between each persona, or mask, or cage, that forms the choices of each ‘I’. Yet to share with others is a choice; to align ourselves with others, and their experience, is a choice. So sympathy is a choice: which means, as always, that there’s a twist…

Twisted sympathies

Before we can grasp where those twists come in, we first need to understand the distinctions between sympathy and empathy – they’re similar, but there are some important differences. Perhaps the most central of these is the difference in context: sympathy brings others’ experience, via those threads of the wyrd, into our own context, whereas empathy allows us to sample that same experience in the others’ own context. In effect, by understanding both sympathy and empathy, and this crucial distinction between them, we can use them to explore our own boundaries and barriers – and those of others – from both sides of the fence.

This distinction between sympathy and empathy can take a bit of practice to understand, but it’s worth the effort. To illustrate this, I could easily come up with an example or two from my all-too-common rows with Mary – where sympathy and empathy are sometimes conspicuous only by their absence – but it’s probably best to go straight back to the café for another session of people-watching!

Sympathy is relatively easy to understand, and to experience: all we have to do is watch what we feel in relation to others. For example, just as you quieten down in the café and start to construct that sense of ‘connectedness’ that we’ve explored before, Julie comes crashing in through the door, throws herself down into a cubicle beside some friends, and talks at them animatedly – obviously angry about something or someone, as usual. What do you feel as you watch her? Notice first your own response to her – your pulse will probably start racing a bit, for example, in defence against her sheer energy – but then look behind that: where do you feel her anger within you? Where within you do those weird echoes of her anger appear? What form does that sense of being ‘in sympathy’ with her take?

That’s sympathy. Sometimes there’s a sense of being dragged ‘into sympathy’ with someone, whether to we want to or not – that’s certainly the case with Julie’s regular rampages, for example – so we have to choose to be ‘unsympathetic’, and shut ourselves off from them, for our own safety and sanity! But we also have the choice to switch into empathy: to reach out into the wyrd to experience those threads in their context, from their perspective rather than ours – sometimes with very different results.

One way to do this is to place ourselves literally in their context: for example, to hold the same posture and stance as others, or to move in the same way as they do, will often bring up a empathetic response in us – as we saw in the previous book. For example, that man sitting quietly over there in the corner, looking vacantly into space, still nursing the same cup of coffee after more than half an hour: what do you feel as you watch him? Sadness, perhaps? Isolation? Loneliness? That’s sympathy; but now sit in exactly the same posture as him, holding your cup in the same way, your head at the same angle: in what ways do the feelings change? From apparent alone-ness, perhaps, to quiet contemplation (or ‘all-one-ness’); from apparent sadness to a subtle satisfaction? Sympathy is important; but if we rely on sympathy alone, we can make a lot of mistakes…

Without sympathy, we can’t ever really be aware of others, or of our relationship with others; yet without empathy we’ll never be able to understand why others are the way they are, or why they do what they do, in the way that they do it. One friend commented that her husband had always been disparaging about her fear of driving a car; he was obviously sympathetic and understanding, but annoyed, because it seemed to him to be so irrational – and it made her very dependent on him, especially when they moved out of town. But then she took up motorcycling – and took to it like a duck to water, with none of the fears that had plagued her behind the wheel of a car. Yet whilst she became less afraid, he became more so, with – to her – increasingly irrational fears about her safety. In effect, he’d become lost in over-sympathy: he translated her experience of riding the bike into his context – and assumed that she had to be feeling as unsafe as he did on a bike. He couldn’t quite make the shift from sympathy to empathy: but if he had, it would have solved the problem, because he would then have known that from her context – her point of view – motorcycling for all its known dangers, felt far more safe than driving.

The usual notion of ‘sympathy’ – that I’m sad because I see that you’re sad, and somehow that’s supposed to be a ‘good thing’ – is actually more of a hindrance than a help in these circumstances! It’s best understood as a well-meant attempt at ‘import’ rather than ‘export’, trying to ‘make things better’ by inverting the usual power-over and power-under delusions: the idea seems to be that there’s only a limited amount of sadness in the world, so if I willingly take it from you, you must necessarily feel happier. But it’s unfortunately just as much of a delusion as power-over and power-under: and because of the weird nature of real sympathy, it can actually backfire badly – so that we’re now both stuck in sadness, with no way out… Genuine sympathy is important, especially in maintaining relationships: but there are subtle twists to that choice of sympathy – so do what you choose, says the wyrd, but be very sure that you choose it…

What’s your experience of the usual idea of ‘sympathy’? When you’ve tried to ‘be sympathetic’ with others, how well has it really worked? And what did you feel when others tried to ‘be sympathetic’ with you in that way?

Rather than the muddled confusions of the usual idea of ‘sympathy’, what does work is a more subtle, but much more difficult, combination of sympathy and empathy. We first need to understand their choices, through empathy: which may show us that they choose to feel sad – to explore their grief, perhaps – and do not want our ‘sympathy’! Yet if they do want our help, we can choose to move into sympathy with them, sharing the same feelings, the same grief – and be aware that, if we get it right, it will hurt just as much for us as it does for them… which can sometimes be very hard to face. Whilst in that space, though, we need to keep enough awareness open to be able to accept that choice and, at the same time, choose differently – yet still maintaining the state of sympathy with the other person, so as to bring them with us to that different state.

A subtle juggling-act – and one that demands a lot of courage… What’s your experience of this? What courage does it ask for from you to reach this weirder, yet more successful, state of sympathy?

As usual, we need to beware of gender-stereotypes here – particularly the commonly-asserted claim that only women are capable of empathy. If we really want to argue about gender-stereotypes, we’ll discover that many kinds of empathy – a connection and an awareness of the Other, in the Other’s context – are historically more ‘male’ than ‘female’ anyway: the complex contextual relationship between the hunter and the hunted, for example, or that weird respect of ‘the Other’ which impels a man to risk his life on behalf of a stranger in a fire or other danger – something which, even now, few women will do. In any case, as more recent feminist authors such as Naomi Wolf and Kate Fillion have warned, what’s usually described as ‘women’s empathy’ is, far more often, not empathy at all, but a mangled pseudo-‘sympathy’ which has more to do subject-centred manipulation and control than with anything else, and which can be immensely destructive for everyone involved.

One form of this is what’s known as ‘awfulizing’ – “oh, how terrible! how awful!” – which looks like sympathy, but in fact is best described as an addiction to adrenalin (specifically, the ‘freeze’ mode of its ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reflex), because it provides an illusion of meaning and urgency. It’s actually an abandonment of ‘I’, our own context, in favour of what looks like the more exciting and interesting – even if perhaps more dangerous or disturbing – lives of others. And it relies, in effect, on a subject-centred form of pornography – meddling in others’ lives in order to avoid responsibility for or within our own – which can become more and more intrusive as the addiction grows. One glance at any of the so-called ‘women’s magazines’ or chat-shows – “lives of the rich and famous!” and so on – will provide all too many examples of this… other people’s misery used as entertainment… There’s little real sympathy there – more like an intrusion over others’ boundaries that’s so pervasive and so entrenched that it’s thought of as ‘normal’, rather than recognised for the abuse that it really is. Unlike true sympathy or empathy, there’s little real intent to create power-with, to help the Other overcome their difficulties: in fact there’s more a need to maintain whatever it is that’s ‘awful’ for the Other, in order to continue ‘awfulizing’ about it…

Once again, although this vicarious meddling and muddling is extremely common in women – because of social stereotypes about women as ‘intimacy experts’, which leaves little room for accepting their own ‘I’ – and is actively promoted by most cuckoo-feminist concepts of ‘women’s empathy’, it’s far from being a women-only fault. Men have their own socially-stereotyped forms of it: for example, claiming that “we won!”, when in fact ‘we’ did nothing more than support some arbitrarily-selected sports team – and even that ‘support’ might consist only of sitting in front of the television with a six-pack or two!

What’s going on in this ersatz empathy is a misunderstanding of the röe and responsibility of ‘I’: the other’s experience is not a substitute for our own, and sympathy and empathy only exist in the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘the Other’. If we’ve abandoned ‘I’ in favour of someone else’s more interesting attributes or experiences, there’s no ‘I’ for there to be relationship with – and hence no real sympathy or empathy. Living vicariously could hardly be called ‘living’, either…

I’m out of the city for a change, up at a country-dance. As the music starts, a large group of dancers move onto the floor – and space themselves out in lines, all carefully copying each other, all carefully keeping a safe distance apart, all carefully avoiding responsibility for the path of the dance. Sure, there are a few real dancers there, weaving a pattern with the threads of the music, but as for the rest… a line of empty puppets, moving jerkily in sympathy to a weird puppet-master’s strings – nary a sign of any ‘We’ to be seen, and little enough of any ‘I’. No wonder the acquaintance who’s brought me here raves about it so much: it’s the only form of ‘social’ dance that could support her fear of intimacy, her terror of touch…

In what ways do you abandon yourself by playing ‘copycat’ – claiming others’ threads instead of your own – in an empty kind of ‘in-sympathy’ with others? Why do you do this? To gain their sympathy, perhaps? Or a sense of sharing, however hollow it may be? Becoming aware of this, what can you do to retain your own sense of ‘I’ as well as your relationship with others – and thus make that sympathy and empathy real?

Another kind of ‘pseudo-sympathy’ that causes many a problem is that subject-centred expectation that others should be ‘in sympathy’ with us – and should thus know exactly what we want, when we want it. Since they often aren’t, and can’t, it’s easy for us to blame them for our refusal to take responsibility for our needs – which usually leads us straight into the unpleasant tangles of abuse and counter-abuse…

Stuck at a junction: there’s a huge pickup truck beside me, and I can’t see past it. So I edge forward: but as I do so, the truck jerks forward too, blocking my view again. I edge forward once more; immediately, the truck pulls forward again – I can’t see a thing, and this is getting dangerous… Suddenly, without any warning, the truck roars forward, straight across me, its boat-trailer only just missing the front of my car; the passenger leans out, screaming obscenities, fingers gesticulating – and that was the only signal I ever saw! As far as they’re concerned, it’s entirely my fault, of course: I should have been ‘in sympathy’ with them, and known, without any indication, that they wanted to turn across my lane…

What are some of your own experiences of this? What do you feel when someone expects you automatically to be ‘in sympathy’ with them – and blames you when, unsurprisingly, you’re unable to do so?

And what are some of the circumstances in which you’ve done the same: expected others to know (magically, perhaps?) what you want and need – and have blamed them for failing to do so? If sympathy is about relationship with the other – rather than a subject-centred ‘passing the buck’ – what ‘response-ability’ do you have to change this?

Sympathy and empathy are the means by which we become ‘in touch’ with others, sharing threads of the wyrd that pass through ‘I’ and ‘We’ and ‘I’. But this only works when there’s a full understanding of the boundaries between ‘I’, and ‘We’, and the other’s ‘I’ – and a full understanding, too, that to connect with others, in sympathy and empathy, is a choice.

Choosing sympathy

It’s sometimes difficult to see that we do have choice in this: more usually, it’ll seem that either we’re in sympathy with others, or not, and there’s not that much that we can do about it. And it’s certainly unwise to pretend that we feel what we don’t feel, or that we don’t feel what we do: so where does choice come into it? The short answer is that whilst we can’t control what we feel, we can direct our response to what we feel: but to do that means that we first have to be aware of what we feel – and also when what we feel actually is our own feeling, rather than one that’s drifted in, through sympathy, along the threads of wyrd.

That sounds a bit weird, perhaps, but we’ve met something similar already: those ‘foreign’ memories that we learnt to watch out for, back in the practical work on boundaries. And this time we have, if not an explanation as such, then at least a better understanding of what’s going on: like those two pendulums on the string, we can find ourselves drifting in and out of being ‘in sympathy’ with others, which means that we’ll find ourselves sharing ‘foreign’ feelings much like those ‘foreign’ memories – or perhaps find ourselves unable to ‘connect’ with others, no matter how sympathetic we might be, because we’re ‘out of phase’ with them. With awareness, we do have the choice to change this.

Back to the café again! Most of what we’ve done there before has been about boundaries: this time we’re looking more closely at the threads that cross those boundaries, weaving together ‘I’ and ‘not-I’ as ‘We’. So find a convenient quiet corner, and relax; close your eyes, and allow yourself to become aware of the space around you. Feel the limits of your physical boundaries: and then explore the blurred edges of ‘I’ – the warmth or coolness around your hands, the way your hair extends outward into ‘uncertain-I’, the way your breath moves into and returns from a space you share with others.

Then expand this blurry bounded-yet-unbounded sense of ‘I’ outward into that shared space, carefully, yet respectfully, so that your ‘I’ overlaps the physical space occupied by others. When we tried this before, some while ago, you watched for a feeling of ‘unsafety’, as they came too close to your boundary for comfort: this time – remembering from that previous example that you can ‘disconnect’ from them whenever you need – reach out to bring yourself ‘into sympathy’ with them. Notice how your feelings change with the threads of ‘We’ – the relationship between your own ‘I’ and that of the other person.

Focus your attention on one person at a time: anyone will do, but if they become aware of your ‘connecting’ to them – as they may well do, given the nature of the wyrd – it’s best to withdraw back into ‘I’, and try again with someone else. In what ways do your feelings change as you expand into ‘We’? In what ways do these feelings differ as you move into a felt sense of ‘We’ – a sympathy, and an empathy – with different people?

On some occasions, or with some people, all you’ll get from ‘We’ is a sense of ‘nothingness’, or perhaps even a definite ‘No!’ If that’s the case, you’ve hit a boundary: it’s best to back off, and quietly ‘disconnect’ from that person – move yourself ‘out of sympathy’ with them. In other cases you might feel swamped, as you reach out to connect with some person: again, back off, and reconnect with your own sense of ‘I’. Try again later with the same person: what difference – if any – do you feel? Watching what had previously seemed to be your own feelings change as you move into and out of sympathy with others – connect with and disconnect from that sense of ‘We’ between you – which feelings do only belong to ‘I’?

Sympathy and empathy only exist in relationship: which means that, to make it work, we have to be fully aware of two people – both ‘I’ and the Other – at the same time. This takes some practice… it’s all too easy, for example, to try to be sympathetic with others – or particularly to reach out in empathy to others – and become so focussed on trying to connect with the other person that we lose track of ‘I’. Reaching out to others in sympathy or empathy shows us how we relate – interweave – with others: but unless we remember to retain a full awareness of ‘I’ as we do so, there’s there’s nothing left ‘back there’ to anchor that relating to

For much the same reason, we can also fall into another trap – that destructive ‘pseudo-sympathy’ that we saw earlier – if our motives for reaching out to others are unclear. True sympathy and empathy only become possible when we’re solidly anchored in ‘I’: and that can only happen when we’re asserting ‘I’, not running away from it!

One of the hardest issues I’ve had to face has been a near-lifelong habit of trying to ‘buy’ being liked – in order to avoid responsibility for my own well-being. I’m the nice one: I’m very sympathetic, I’ll listen to your troubles, I’ll lend you – give you – anything you want; oh, but please, won’t you be nice to me in return? Say you’ll like me… I’ll do anything to make you like me… please?

Not clever… not wise… and whilst the ‘sympathy’ was genuine, after a fashion – and often did seem to help those others, if rarely me – yet in a way it was also manipulative and dishonest – and hence abusive, both of others and, especially, of myself. About which I complained loudly, of course – “why is everyone so unfair to me?” – and carefully avoided asking why… And not comfortable when I finally understood what I was doing…

In what ways do you pretend sympathy with others, in order to maintain relationships with them? In what ways do you suppress what you feel – suppress ‘I’ – ‘for the sake of the friendship’? For example, do you indulge in self-deprecation, or what Kate Fillion calls ‘one-downmanship’, putting yourself down in order to prop the other up, and maintain a semblance of intimacy and closeness? This may seem to work in the short-term, but when it becomes a habit, repeated over and over again over months and years, what does this pseudo-sympathy do to your own sense of ‘I’? What does it do to the relationship? And when it finally falls apart – as it always does – who gets the blame?

True sympathy and empathy arise from a deliberate and aware choice of a subject-centred perspective: which means we also have to be aware of the dangers and drawbacks of that perspective, as we saw earlier. The object-centred perspective depends on a clear sense of separation, of boundaries; the subject-centred one on a sense of connection, of interwovenness, in which the other – whatever or whoever it may be – is seen as an extension of self, as a part of ‘I’ rather than something apart. In sympathy and empathy, this has to be taken a stage further: the Other is not merely part of ‘I’, but ‘I’ and the Other are one and the same. Both sentiments are subject-centred, and the difference between them is mainly one of emphasis and focus: in sympathy, we explore others’ feelings as if they were our feelings, in our context; in empathy we in effect move our sense of ‘I’ into the other’s context, and from there, as the old native-American image puts it, we ‘walk a mile in their moccasins’.

Empathy is often harder than sympathy, because we have to make a deliberate effort to let go of our own prejudices and assumptions: it can be very hard, for example, for someone from a materialistic Western background to fully grasp Mother Teresa’s Eastern-influenced comment that “loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty”…

It’s always easiest to ‘walk a mile in the moccasins’ of someone who’s similar to you: so make a specific effort to do so with those who aren’t. For example, reach out in empathy with a prostitute, or a politician; with a mother in the last moments of childbirth, or a soldier in the chaos and terror of battle; explore life as an ant, or a cat – and at the same moment, as a sparrow cornered by the same cat. Reach out to grasp their challenges, their choices, from their perspective rather than your own. Being aware of both their life, and yours, in the same moment, notice how those same threads, those same choices, appear in your own life, in different forms, and in different intensities. What do you learn? How hard is it for you to avoid dropping back to a pseudo-‘sympathy’, aware of what is happening in their life, yet judging them from the preconceptions of your own?

Both sympathy and empathy are concerned with relationship: so it’s important to remember that our first relationship is always with ourself – and hence we need our own sympathy and empathy at times. ‘Self-sympathy’ could almost be a synonym for self-awareness, or, for that matter, for assertiveness: it’s about extending those threads of relationship and connectedness all the way back to oneself, acknowledging that we do ‘have a right to be here, no less than the trees and stars’ – yet also no more than the trees and stars, too. But in self-empathy, we acknowledge who we are, in our own context, as if relating to a total stranger – in other words, trying to see ourselves as others would, to understand our choices and our challenges ‘from the outside’. (In a peculiar sense, it’s so subject-centred that it ends up being almost object-centred: it’s the nearest that we’ll ever get to being ‘objective’ about our own actions!) It’s particularly important to use self-empathy when looking at our own past: otherwise it’s all too easy to wander off into delusions of self-importance or – more likely – to spiral down into a morass of self-pity and self-blame.

To understand self-empathy, choose a moment that you don’t like about your past – something deeply embarrassing, perhaps, or an act that now seems cowardly or cruel. That kind of judgement comes up easily, even when we try to be sympathetic, because we’re looking at those incidents from our current context, with all the benefit of hindsight. So shift instead into empathy, viewing yourself-of-then as if a total stranger, in another context, another world.

First look back into the past ‘objectively’, to help you rebuild an awareness and an understanding of your context – who, what, when, where and why – at that time, with all that ‘benefit of hindsight’; then reach out not just to remember but to feel again the exact circumstances of that moment; and merge those two very different perspectives into one, viewing the actions of yourself-of-then within the overall context of the time. What were the choices and the challenges that yourself-of-then believed you faced, that led you to the actions that you then took? In what ways do your current judgements of yourself-of-then change? Seen from the wider perspective, in what ways now do those choices perhaps seem ‘mis-taken’ – or perhaps seem more understandable, given the full context of the time? Given that hindsight, how hard is it for you to accept, simply that that is what you did – for reasons that, at the time, were simply the reasons that you chose?

Those were the choices, there, then; the results, here, now, are the twists… And yes, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps you could have done things differently; perhaps you should have done things differently; but those ‘magic’ words – so commonly a cue for self-deprecation – don’t actually help in resolving anything from the past, and usually only make things worse. The past is the past: we can see it, but we can never change it, and any attempt to do so, or to make others do so, only ends up abusing someone – usually ourselves. Instead, use self-empathy’s strangely dispassionate yet compassionate gaze to accept the choices of yourself-of-then: accepting that that is what you did, in what ways does it make it easier to be ‘response-able’ about it now? In what ways does your ‘response-ability’ change – empowering you to do whatever needs to be done now to resolve the unpleasantness of that moment in the past?

Sympathy and empathy demand a lot from us: honesty and self-honesty, in particular. And in turn they help us to be more honest, with ourselves, and with others. But we can’t do it all ourselves: and we don’t need to, because those same threads of connectedness – if we allow them to do so – will show us allies at every turn. These allies are more than ‘friends’: they’re in sympathy with us, yes, but they’re not necessarily ‘sympathetic’ in the usual sense! True allies are able to be honest with us, and in turn we’re able to be honest with them: which is why we need them so much when – as now – we begin to put our weird ‘toolkit’ into practical use.

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