Monday, October 6, 2008

Sympathy Versus Understanding

I did something unusual today that most people don’t do anymore…I pulled out (and cracked open) an actual paper/book dictionary… Because the distinction between understanding and sympathy has been bothering me for a while.

Sympathy vs. understanding? Is there a difference between the two? What do I desire from people?

Well, in order to answer these questions, I first have to know “officially” what the two words actually mean.


“Sameness of feeling; affinity between persons or of one person for another”

“An entering into, or the ability to enter into another person’s mental state, feelings, emotions, etc.”

“Pity or compassion felt for another’s troubles, suffering, etc.”


“Mutual comprehension, as of ideas, intentions, etc.”

“A mutual agreement, esp. one that settles differences or is informal and not made public”

What I realize in taking myself through this exercise is that sympathy and understanding are deeply tied up in meaning. “Feeling”, “pity”, “compassion”, “comprehension”, and “agreement” are all words that find themselves in these definitions and I think, in terms of chronic illness, is assuming a lot (at least most of the time, that is).

How often do any of those terms describe how we feel from our interactions with the non-chronically ill?

I was recently having a conversation with someone who I had not seen or spoken to since before receiving my “official” diagnosis. Well, this person and I got to talking and their reaction was, “This is just shitty”.

And you know what? I agree.

And it was somewhat refreshing to be in the company of someone who could understand what a snag lupus and rheumatoid arthritis have put on my life.

And while we are on the subject…

I’ve come to realize that playing the role of the patient has put me at an advantage in my research. I think that being diagnosed with and experiencing what life is like with chronic illness has made me a more compassionate, and dare I say understanding, person.

Some might say that this is one heck of a price to pay in order to gain rapport when I am interviewing people. But it is not just that. It allows me to see directly into their world and to be acutely aware of what it means to look, feel, and act different, because I am acutely aware of this every single day.

Sometimes I wish our foreheads could double as car bumpers so that each day I could wear a new sticker on my forehead – an insignia that would tell the world how I am truly feeling on the inside – the part of me that very few people ever really get to see. And usually when they do, it is behind closed doors in whispered, hurried conversations, or over the desk at my doctors’ offices (and even then, not so much).

So what do I expect from people? That’s not an easy question to answer. But I guess it would be nice every once in a while for someone to acknowledge that my life sometimes stinks more than the average 23-year olds and that their life is made better by virtue of them not being ill. This seems obvious, but sometimes it would be nice if there were other people other than me wiling to admit it.
“Sympathy.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary. 4th ed. 2000.
“Understanding.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary. 4th ed. 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment