Sympathy–sharing the feelings of another. This is what happens when we “feel” what others feel about events or situations.
For example: Since I know what it is like to lose a loved one, I can be sympathetic to others who have lost a loved one and generally, will know how to respond to them.
Empathy–identifying with another’s feelings, thoughts, attitudes. We can relate to a person’s feelings or attitudes about an event or situation.
For Example: Understanding how dysfunctional our Congress is, I can empathize with new-comers who think they will be able to effect a change in the status-quo.
Apathy–lacking interest or concern about things that concern others; absence of excitement or passion about a situation. We don’t care one way or another about an event or situation.
For Example: Although I have concluded that the political system in this country does not work for the middle-class and poor, I will not be apathetic and not vote for someone in the upcoming elections.
Why bother to make these distinctions in words? Based upon my observations of people and how they behave towards others and situations, I simply thought to offer insight.
When I see people do nothing to improve their quality of life–mentally, physically, or financially, I refuse to have any sympathy for them. After all, unless they are totally physically incapable of doing something about their lives, they deserve no sympathy. With recent outrage about water shut-offs in Detroit, I have no sympathy for anyone using the service and thinking they do not have to pay for it. Having access to water is not about it being a “human rights” issue; it is about being responsible in determining how much one can afford to pay for having water and making arrangements to pay on the bill–before it gets turned off. For the person who struggles and yet pays something, I can have empathy for in their plight. For those who deliberately use and then don’t want to pay, they get no sympathy from me.
The same is true for those who do nothing for days, weeks, months at-a-time and then over-exert unused muscles and end up in pain, expecting sympathy from others. Not from me. Exercise those muscles on a daily basis and then if there is a problem, I will be sympathetic regarding the situation and respond accordingly.
Knowing the difference between being sympathetic, empathetic, and apathetic makes a difference in how we respond to others. Since I am highly emotional (and opinionated), I doubt seriously if I could be apathetic about any situation, but I can certainly be sympathetic or empathetic about many.
“With all of our getting (or gathering of information), we need to get understanding.”