Sympathy and empathy in the time of coronavirus

Empathy, the ability to put oneself into the shoes of another and truly comprehend their point of view, is another story altogether: Our country suffers from severely a diminished capacity for it, especially as it would be applied to our political leaders. And this is because of the hyper-partisan, tribal nature of our politics: We have truly become two nations, with two distinct world views, and few if any of us are truly willing to try to see things from the opposite side of the divide.

Empathy requires us to understand how others came to arrive at their worldview, without allowing our own biases to cloud our judgment. And if you don’t believe me when I say that Americans are terrible at this, answer me this: How many liberals can put themselves in Donald Trump’s shoes without bias or partisan rancor? How many conservatives can apply the same exercise to Nancy Pelosi?

The uniqueness of empathy is that, unlike sympathy, it allows for people to join together and at least attempt to have a truly shared intellectual experience. It involves first, seeing another individual’s situation from their unique perspective, and second, sharing their emotions, including their personal fears and distress. While sympathy shows our emotional respect for others, empathy requires intellectual respect, and that simply isn’t on offer across the battleground on which our warring political tribes face off.