Welcome to the 2013 A to Z Challenge!
This year, I’m focusing on two themes: Emotions and grammar,
depending on which letter we’re on each day.
Today’s an emotion day!
S is for Sympathy: harmony of or agreement in feeling between persons; the fact or power of sharing feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; compassion, commiseration.
Sympathy and empathy are closely related, but the difference between them is this: When you actually experience another person’s feelings within yourself, that is empathy. When you do not feel it, yet still experience compassion for them, that is sympathy. This is something I use a lot in my novel, The Mistaken.
The main male character commits a heinous offense against the main female one. You’d think she’d despise him for it, but, after learning the reasons behind his actions, she actually feels sorry for him. But if you think about it, sympathy is a difficult emotion to effectively convey without the character coming off as simply uncomfortable with the situation.
When you come across someone who is suffering, you feel obligated to offer a hug or a rub along the back, to spew polite platitudes of sympathy, because you feel bad for them. “I’m sorry. I’m here for you. It’s probably for the best. How can I help?” Sounds nice, but it’s hardly comforting and only serves to make the speaking character feel more at ease with the situation.
I think one effective way to demonstrate sympathy is to attempt to bridge that gap toward empathy. While it might be impossible for the character to truly feel what the other is feeling, she can certainly imagine herself in that position, say, if her husband had died in tragic circumstances. True, her spouse is alive and well, but what if he were not? How would she feel if something she had done had indirectly led to his death?
In The Mistaken, the female character observes her attacker’s remorse and regret. It’s plainly etched on his face. She sees a level of fragility and vulnerability there and it makes the mother in her ache at what has caused it.
But what makes her truly sympathize with him is how closely her own life has paralleled his, how her husband’s betrayal had made her feel so many of the same emotions, and how easy it would have been for her to give in and give herself over to revenge. While she feared him, her heart held a degree of sympathy, telling her to be compassionate toward his tortured soul. “There but for the grace of God,” she says to herself.
And that, I think, is what sympathy is all about—There but for the grace of God.