Empathy not Sympathy

Yu sheng or Lou Hei, is a Chinese New Year’s tradition, where family members bring ingredients to a shared pot and stir in sweet sticky sauce. They then have family members recite the meaning of each of the ingredients.

The name of each ingredient is usually a homophone of a word that is part of an auspicious saying; for instance, “yu” is the pronunciation for both the words “fish” and “abundance” – the latter being part of the greeting “nian nian you yu” (“may you have an abundance [of whatever you desire] every year”).

As the ingredients are added, diners recite the corresponding saying, with exaggerated tossing using their chopsticks. It’s said that the higher one tosses, the happier one will be, which comes from another homophone – in Cantonese, “lo hei” means to “toss”, and “hei” also means happiness.

The belief is that the ritual creates the conditions for prosperity and health for the year ahead.

They’re right, insofar as such rituals call forth empathy between family members; deepening the ties that bind, and that’s the foundation of health and prosperity. Health, because health is so clearly determined by social bonds; and prosperity because adequate wealth is not so much about what you know, or who know, it’s about who you know who knows who you need to know.

The world needs more collective empathy, and so, needs the rituals and practices that call it forth. But what we’re getting instead is sympathy. I wonder if sympathy increases proportionate to the speed at which our rituals disappear. While empathy binds like sweet sticky plum sauce, the ingredients that provide us with the sustenance, and the energy to be productive. Sympathy divides us and turns us into consumers. It divides the helper and the helped, the haves and have-nots, the good guys and the bad and the needed and so-called needy.

There is a simple way to assess whether you are practicing sympathy or empathy.

Sympathy means the helper doesn’t need anything from those whom they help. Empathy inverts this, creating a bond of interdependence between both parties. The helper needs the helped as much as the helped needs the helper. Those who practice empathy understand their liberation is intertwined with others, and so they move beyond classic helping into a shared pursuit towards liberation.

Empathy invites people who have been labeled as ‘needy’, back into community life because their gifts are needed and because we need them. Sympathy has the effect of creating dependence between those viewed by some as ‘the needy’ and the ‘needed’. Often at the expense of interdependence at the center of community life.

Sympathy creates soup kitchens, empathy creates community kitchens, where the harvests of local foods are prepared by neighbours: where everyone’s gifts are needed to create the feast. In the community kitchen you can’t tell the difference between the helper and helped because they are interdependent. The person labeled as homeless, is actually the chef and there, is as worthy and as needed as the middle class volunteer eager to help. It is in this space that together they practice a version of ‘Lou Hei’. And it is there that they get better at being human together.

It is in this space they may begin to ask: “why do we have five empty homes for every homeless person in our city?”, and “why can’t we figure out how those who want more friendship and companionship in their lives can’t be connected with those who have it to give and need a place to live?” Who knows they may even ask each other.

Our world needs more sweet sticky plum sauce, we already have the ingredients.

Happy Chinese New Year.

Cormac Russell


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  • Liam Hughes

    But see Paul Bloom, a Harvard psychologist, on the benefits of compassion rather than empathy.

    March 23, 2018 at 5:06 pm
    • Thanks Liam. Interesting read. He’s defense of rational compassion certain contrast with my orientation towards collective empathy. Sometimes it seems he fails to distinguish between sympathy and empathy? If he did he may well in part agree with me? Really appreciate your comment. Best wishes, Cormac

      March 24, 2018 at 1:52 am

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