While empathy doesn’t come in as many varieties as are found in the cereal aisle, it is no more uniform than it is universal.
Empathy is generally understood as the ability to appreciate the ideas and feelings of another, even if those ideas or feelings are different from one’s own.
It is also volitional — I have to put on someone else’s shoes to be able to walk around in them awhile.
Healthy relationships in general and constructive communication in particular cannot happen without some sort of resonance between people. Establishing resonance can be taxing, but without it things fall apart at some point. We can think of interpersonal or intergroup resonance as falling somewhere along what can be thought of as an empathic continuum.
Along this empathic continuum we have things like sympathy, understanding, pity, sensitivity, acceptance, and compassion. When parents provide this for their children it takes on special importance. Empathy is then called attunement or mirroring, and a young child’s well-being or even survival depends on it.
While all resonance along the empathic continuum is affirmative, some are more costly than others, requiring more or less adjustment of our own personal needs or attitudes. Interpersonal resonance is a skill, a gift, a choice, and a commitment.
On the empathic continuum, pity is the least demanding because it posits a degree of separateness between or among persons or groups. It can be tricky to pity someone with a disability or a serious illness. In the wrong hands, pity can devolve into condescension or even revulsion.
Sympathy implies a harmony of feeling, where we truly commiserate with the feelings of another. However, we may not generalize those feelings to ourselves.
Empathy requires that we suspend our own judgments and emotions about a situation or person, and attempt to walk in their shoes, hence the more volitional aspect of true empathy. Empathy is where resonance really starts to hum. Empathy recognizes there is indeed only six degrees of separation.
Finally, compassion involves a felt desire to alleviate the suffering of another. Compassion requires us to take a bit of another’s suffering and carry it around in our own heart, possibly for a long time. Compassion can also be challenging in that it may call us to confront the causes of another’s suffering, which can include abuse, bigotry, or unjust social and economic structures. Compassion begins with empathic connection, and carries on with committed action.
Just as we can check out the entire cereal aisle, the empathic continuum is neither static nor mutually exclusive. We could be moved to pity by the face of a malnourished child on our screen, and one day end up befriending a struggling child we come to know, right in our own community.