Sympathy or compassion

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By 2017-12-10

By Priyangwada Perera

"Amma, do you know what happened to Anoj?" Ruwan asked his mother when he entered the house. Ruwan always came home after school and started telling his mother about his day right at the doorstep. His mother knew this must be the latest story from school. "What is it darling?" mother asked.

"Anoj brought his new remote controlled car to school. His father had sent it from Japan. We were playing with it when Anoj wanted to show us how the car makes a perfect landing, even when it comes down a slope. But he got confused with the remote control buttons and the car crashed into the wall," Ruwan said in one breath. "It came so fast, that the bonnet got smashed, just like the vehicles we see when an accident happens. Anoj was so sad and he cried. He had just received it yesterday and today it is broken." His mother asked Ruwan whether they did anything to console him. "Yes, we tried to fix it. We even took the car to our Science teacher and asked him whether he can fix it. He said he can try to stick the pieces together. But he was not too sure. Even if he could, I don't think it will look the same." Mother finally said, "I can see that you all feel very sympathetic towards him."

"We feel what? Sympathetic? What does that mean?" asked Ruwan. "You feel sorry for him and his loss. You try to understand his sadness and misery. That is what sympathy means," explained his mother. "Oh yes, that is true. Like we feel sorry and sympathetic for the beggars that we meet on the road, right?" Ruwan wanted more information.

"Well, that is not exactly the same. There is a difference in what we should feel for the beggar. Yes, no doubt we are sympathetic towards the beggar. But the difference is that sympathy is not enough," said mother. Ruwan looked confused. She started explaining again. "Ruwan, when you see a hungry poor man, you and I can always feel sorry for him, like we always do.
We look at such a person and say 'oh how sad... he is so poor and he must be hungry'. What we feel is sympathy. Any one of us can sympathize with someone else. That means we are sensitive to his situation and try to imagine how hard it is for him. We try to imagine how it is to have nothing to eat. We try to remember the last time we felt really hungry and what we experienced. When we try to relate to that experience, that is called empathy. In other words, it is like walking in that person's shoes."
That made Ruwan thoughtful. Yes, that makes sense. "But Ruwan, just because we are sympathetic and feel sorry for that person, it doesn't help anyone" mother said. She continued, "What should happen is this sympathy should generate a feeling of compassion in us.

If we are compassionate, we would not stop at being 'just sorry'. We will take action to ease the pain of that person. We should try to help him, give him some food. We must do something other than just saying, 'oh how sad, how unfortunate, it must be terrible.' Our sympathy alone cannot do much."

After the long explanation Ruwan said, "Luckily we tried to help Anoj fix it, so that is compassion, isn't it?" His mother smiled. "Yes, it is. For anything in life, we should be compassionate. Compassion is love in action. If your brother falls down, you don't stand aside and feel sorry. You run to help him get up. To see whether he is injured and if he is, see how you can help. That is compassion." When Ruwan asked "Isn't it a good virtue to remember during the season of Christmas?" his mother was even more pleased.

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