Sympathy or empathy: is one better than the other?

After my latest post, someone asked me whether I thought there was a difference between sympathy and empathy.

And like an alt right cronie on Reddit or like a left wing snowflake watching Fox News – I was triggered.


I have a massive problem with the contemporary blurring of lines; between illusory facades of action and actual beneficial steps taken for the betterment of society.

And there is no better exemplification of this dichotomy than sympathy and empathy.

(i) Sympathy
Sympathy is simply defined as feelings of pity for another persons misfortune (legit the first definition that came up on google). And already, that definition highlights the problematic nature of a sympathetic society.

Sympathy is the mental equivalent of turning off the TV when unsavoury aspects of our humanity come into purview; war, famine, homelessness (whatever makes our consciousness uncomfortable).


1 like = 1 prayer…yeah I’m just gonna scroll past that shit.

We can express our disdain and our distaste, but it’s no more than a fleeting reaction to a stimulus.

You know that experiment – Pavlov’s Dogs.


They rang a bell every time the dogs were presented with food – to the point where they rang the bell, and the dogs would salivate even if no food was present.
It’s kinda like that.

Sympathy is a mechanism programmed into us so that it fulfills both our need to know we are better off than others but simultaneously seem like nice people who care.

Sympathy is a mixture of ‘oh poor you’ and ‘thank god it ain’t me.’
Sympathy has no depth and ignores the context of others.
Sympathy instead, reframes the context to the self.

Like lust is to a beautiful man or woman (whichever suits your fancy).
We all know that shit ain’t love.

Sympathy allows us to disengage from genuine conversations surrounding mental health, global disenchantment and racial division.
And instead, it makes us think that a quick status update and a temporary profile picture overlay is enough.


Sympathy trivializes issues of today; it is not constructive in nature and sometimes can serve to do more harm than good.
Sympathy enables rather than assists.

“Oh I’m sorry you feel that way”
“I’m sorry that’s happening to you”
“I couldn’t possibly understand – so you better just do you”


And that’s the fine line sympathy runs along – passivity passed off as caring concern.
Sympathy is affirmation provided for others, given lazily and without any proper consideration.
But, productive engagement with others requires more than that.

(ii) Empathy
Enter, empathy (again thank you google for the definition):
The ability to understand the feelings of another.

Empathy ensures that instead of coming from a point of relief (that whatever shit isn’t happening to you) – your compassion is coming from a place of gratitude and care.


Gratitude enables us to be increasingly empathetic because it serves as the purest reminder of our privilege and the rewards of perseverance.
Gratitude is the hard work you’ve put in, it’s the people who have helped you along the way, it’s the countless rejections until your opportunity came.

Gratitude contextualizes human suffering.
It reminds us that we’ve all been there before.
Down in the dumps.
Grinding in the dirt.
Searching for the next good thing.
Though the experience may differ from person to person – the journey and its lessons are a prerequisite for humanity.

It’s the hard knock life, for us.


Not for John.
Not for Carol.
For us.

Gratitude, and its place within empathy, allows us to feel for others from a position of equality rather than survival.
In empathy, we understand that it is beneficial to everyone if we do all we can for each other.


Symbolism only gets us so far.
Love thy neighbour as yourself.

Empathy responsibilizes us to care.
It gives us the courage to say the tough things, when everything is going wrong.
It humbles us.

For me:
Empathy is the clearest sign yet that man is born good – not evil.
Because even though we possess the means to completely and utterly annihilate each other at every challenge, disagreement and discord – we haven’t.

And its as simple as that.
Sympathy is a recusal of human responsibility
Empathy is the constant and consistent reminder that each and every one of us are better together rather than apart.


Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.

Get in touch ~
Instagram: @chinkinthearmour

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