Sympathy, Empathy And Compassion

Jay Litvin
513 words, 10K views, 15 comments


We are grateful to Rupali Bhuva for offering this hand-made painting for this reading.

Pity, sympathy, empathy, compassion. Each is received at various times by one in distress. They are the responses engendered by our misfortunes from those we encounter. And each feels different when received. Each has a different effect on those who are suffering in the midst of psychic or physical crisis.

Of the four, compassion has a unique quality, a quality so different from the rest that it connotes a certain spiritual as well as emotional characteristic. Perhaps for this reason it is often cited in spiritual/religious texts as a virtue to be sought and developed.

The recipient of compassion feels its superiority immediately. Unlike pity, it has no condescension. Unlike empathy, it does not require a past or present similar experience on the part of the giver. And while sympathy is a wonderful virtue, it connotes less spontaneity and variety than compassion; one would not normally associate laughter or frivolity with sympathy, for example. And there is also a certain distance or separation inherent in sympathy, one sympathizes with the other. A very wonderful quality, still, sympathy stands at a different level than compassion.

While sympathy is a tender response to misfortune or difficulty, compassion is a way of life.

The dictionary offers the following root for compassion: Com (with) - pati (to suffer), to suffer with.

But there is another definition, one that does not limit compassion as a response to suffering, but rather to life itself, making it a quality that one would live with in every situation, with every person, rather than only with one who is in distress.

Com-passion: Com (with) - passion (strong feeling, enthusiasm); to be with another in strong feeling and with enthusiasm.

Compassion, then, does not require sadness, sorrow or even the desire to help, though it could include all these things. It simply means being fully present with someone no matter the circumstances of his or her life. Compassion suspends judgment and takes each circumstance equally — each as a moment of life to be lived in its fullness. It . All possible emotions and feelings and behaviors of which we are capable are inherent in every moment, in every circumstance.

And so, compassion comes with no preconceptions. It has no attitudes. It has no special face or tone of voice. It is not bound by rules of behavior, decorum, expectations, though it may be guided by all of these things.

Compassion is prepared to meet others wherever they are, recognizing that the circumstance or challenge they now face is as much a part of their life as any other part of their life. Compassion can laugh or cry, joke or commiserate, be curious and inquisitive, chatty or silent. Compassion is not afraid to be fully present, hopeful, or lighthearted. Compassion does not turn away. It is never afraid to see beauty or find humor or share a fractured heart.


Jay Litvin served as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel.  Excerpted from here.