Touch My Heart: How We React to the Suffering of Others

Comfort the weeping

Suffering is everywhere. You see a ragged, old street beggar lying solemnly on the cold, hard pavement, with hardly anything to cover himself but a blanket full of holes. He is nothing but a skeleton in brown saran wrap and old clothes, barely able to beg for money or even food. You don’t think he’ll survive tonight.

What would your reaction be? For most people, they’d just walk past by and pretend the vagabond is just illusory street grafitti. Others would pause, look at the man, say a little prayer, and move on. Still others would drop coins near him as they zoom past the scene, their pace uninterrupted. We all have it in our hearts to feel another’s pain, but what it is, is not that simple.

Breaking it down

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them man cannot survive.

– Tenzin Gyatso

You see someone suffering, and you instantly feel sad for him/her. What is this emotion you’re feeling? That depends on how much you feel sorry for the person. Man is a social being, and thus naturally feels compassion for his fellowmen during their time of need. Feeling sorry for another person because he/she is in a worse situation than you are is a sign of empathy. Or is it?

In 1909, we received the word empathy when Edward Titchener, a psychologist, translated the German word Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English. We often think that just because a person is ’empathetic’, then he is a good Samaritan who likes to relieve others from their misery. Sometimes we think it means he cares about people’s happiness. There are actually other words for these similar yet easily confused sharing of emotions, and we will discuss them in full detail.

1. Pity

Stop crying; you’ll make me feel bad.

Pity is the feeling of sadness, discomfort, distress, or sorrow upon witnessing the plight or misery of another. Let’s say you see a woman at the grocery store being harassed by her husband, yelling that everything she picks from the shelves is the wrong item. You just stare at them silently, feeling sorry for the woman, then immediately walk away.

What can we conclude here? Pity is merely acknowledging that a third party is suffering, and that you have your ‘most sincere apologies’ to them for their pain, but that’s it. Any other additional elements shared would not constitute pity.

A real-life, very common display of pity is the likebait in social media. An example would be seeing a very sad picture or story of an unfortunate child/animal/family/invalid followed by the caption, “Like/Repost/Reblog/Retweet/Share if you understand X’s pain and want to help.” with the full knowledge that doing so isn’t really helping; just showing that you know of their suffering.

1 Like = 1 Prayer

 2. Sympathy and Empathy

suffering together is better than alone
“I know your pain. I’ve been there too.”

Sympathy (Gk; ‘with feeling’) is the display of pity, additionally with concern for someone who is suffering. It includes the desire to see such person relieved from his/her misery and wishing him/her well in the future. This is the most common variant of ‘shared emotions’ since one only has to feel care and concern for the happiness and well-being of another without actually having felt the same problem or pain oneself. You try to understand that person’s pain by putting yourself in his/her shoes.

Empathy (Gk; ‘in feeling’) on the other hand, is a combination of sympathy and experience. In other words, to feel empathy, you actually need to experience the same kind of suffering as the person for whom you are concerned. You actually understand the pain and how bitter it is, because you’ve been there. Of course, simply having experienced the same pain is not empathy; psychopaths devoid of sympathy may share the same phobia with another person and so they use it as effective torture, knowing from experience how traumatic it was for them.

Suppose you are a nurse comforting a woman who just had a miscarriage. You try to tell her that everything is all right, and that the baby is in heaven, as you start to cry yourself. This is sympathy. “You don’t understand! You do not know how it feels to lose a child you haven’t even hugged yet!” she yells. With tears flowing down your eyes, you whisper as you remember your own baby’s stillbirth, “Actually, I do. Very, very much.” This is empathy, and it is what connects everyone and helps us stand before the storms of life. In fact, just seeing this type of situation in TV shows, movies, or plays would be enough to make us cry!

3. Compassion

Compassion (Lat; ‘suffering with’) is empathy or sympathy plus the explicit desire to alleviate the sufferer from his/her misery. With empathy, you share emotions; with compassion, you share lives. This is the pinnacle of shared emotions, as it stirs within the person’s heart the feeling of genuine love and kindness towards another. It stems from and is commonly confused with empathy, but the main distinction is that being compassionate means feeling sorry for the person, understanding how he/she feels, and actually helping to find a solution for his/her problem.

An example would be a heart doctor who gives out his services to heart disease patients for free because at one point in his life he had suffered a cardiac arrest and was saved by his doctor who performed on him despite his early poverty. He has been in the same situation and doesn’t want anyone to die from it due to unfavorable circumstances. This is compassion, a necessity of life.

This link is another well-displayed act of compassion.

Distinction from Altruism

Altruism or benevolence is helping others with their suffering not because you pity, sympathize with, or empathize with them, but simply because it’s the right thing to do. There is not always a feeling of shared emotions, as altruism is possible when there is no acknowledgment, concern, or understanding of another’s pain; just the desire to ‘make the world a better place’. In other words, it is usually a much more detached and neutral attitude towards the sufferer.

A cliche example of pure altruism would be helping an old lady across the street. You don’t pity the woman for being fragile, you don’t care what happens if she doesn’t cross now, and you’ve certainly never had the trouble of traversing public roads on foot. However, you do it because it’s the right thing, and although noble, there isn’t a bit of shared emotion between either of you.

Sometimes, acts of altruism ultimately backfire because the benevolence is ignorant of the pain; we do not understand the problem but we want to solve it anyway. A good example here would be replacing a poor child’s old toy, which is a memento from her late mother, with a new toy, because we think that’s what is right.

Altruism may also rise from compassion, and this is when we truly want to help solve the problem because we understand it fully. In fact, compassion is the ‘attached’ form of altruism; you’re helping people because you fully understand their pain.


Let’s summarize. Pity is thinking of being in someone’s shoes, while sympathy is putting oneself in his/her shoes. Empathy is actually being there, and compassion is putting oneself in another’s place and having the conscious desire to help.

Now, back to the hypothetical situation in the beginning. What would you feel if you see that old beggar languishing on the pavement? Would you rather be pitiful, sympathetic, empathetic, or compassionate towards him, or downright ignore him? How you react is completely up to you.



Burton, Neel. (2015). Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.


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How Empathetic are You?

Empathy (in His/Her Shoes)

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  1. I never fully understood the difference between empathy and sympathy, and now I do! The sad part is that I don’t usually feel any of those emotions. I read in an interview that a professor said that compassion and empathy could be “learned traits”. What do you think about that?

    1. Since empathy involves understanding the position of other people, I have to say that it can indeed be ‘learned’ through experience. For instance, your friend might have just broke up and you’re like, “So what? Just get another one” until you undergo the same event. Only then will you realize that it’s not that easy and you should not have criticized immediately.

      Compassion involves empathy and a desire to relieve a person from a problem you once faced before, so it can also be learned via experience.

  2. I found this article extremely articulate and very put together. The psychology is all there and there are even quotes. This article sums up these different emotions very well and I found it extremely helpful. I have always deemed myself as an empathetic person and now I have a better understanding of what that means. Thank you.

  3. I thought this article was very concise and articulate in distinguishing different emotions we could experience when we witness the suffering of others. The concise definition and example you gave to differentiate sympathy and empathy has actually clarified to me that instead of empathizing with others as I thought I was, I was actually just sympathizing.

    I also enjoy the fact that you recognized the “like-bait” phenomenon that has over taken social media. We have taken to see shares, tweets and likes from strangers as forms of sympathy.

  4. Can anyone tell and explain where empathy exists in our brain and why we feel that way whenever we witness such melancholic situations? Judging from what Freud has stated, people have two drives within them: sex and aggression. So if we follow these notions, where does altruism actually originate from? Can altruism be naturally found within people? Or is it something which all of us need to mold within ourselves?

  5. This article helps me distinguish between pity sympathy because it always confuses me. Also, you’re very articulate at voicing out your opinions and the examples help a lot.
    Most of my friends would tell me that I’m empathetic, because I’ve been in many challenging situations in my life, and most of the times they would ask for my help.
    Sometimes we all gather together to vent our feelings out (except for me, I just happened to be the “great listener” and “represser” friend), but what I hate the most is that when we all gather together and when one person wants to vent his/her feelings to all of us, there will always be that person who starts the “I’ve had it worse” game. I just think it’s rude and not the right thing to do, especially when the person who is sharing his/her experience is still talking. What do you think is the best thing to say to those who love to start the “I’ve had it worse” game without actually being rude?
    Also, does everyone have altruism within them?

    1. Personally the best way to handle that is to ignore that person for the time being and allow the venting friend to continue. When he/she is finished, you can then allow the interruptor to proceed with his/her story. Usually we cut in during conversations because we want to express our opinion without hearing the full story yet.

      Everyone is born altruistic. It is the social environment around them that determines whether they’ll remain that way or not. It’s similar to the “no baby is born homophobic” idea.

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