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The Impossibility of Sympathy

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Can a man who is warm understand one who is freezing?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn




Everybody--parents who believe that they know us better than ourselves, teachers who in their wisdom think we could always philosophize our way out of life's problems, and supposedly concerned friends who listen a while, say something nice, then move on quickly to a "lighter" topic--they all tell us the same thing: "Be strong!" "You can make it" "It's just a phase" with smiles and pretensions that only reveal that they have no idea of what you are going through. Of course, it's easier that way; we ourselves say these things to those who call out for our help.

It's a matter of substitution, or better, the impossibility of substitution: I can simply never place myself in an other's shoes. What you experience--the tide of events and their histories and circumstances; the force by which they come and the intensity of the emotions that are stirred up in you--will always be yours and can never be available to me. This is the law of individuation--that I, by being-me, will never have access to your being-you.

Forever trapped inside my ego and its own lived-experiences, I am forbidden to enter the kingdom of your happiness or the hell of your sadness. In a word, I shall never be able to understand what you are going through. Wittgenstein had it simpler when he said we could never experience what the toothache of another person feels like.

Thus it is strictly speaking impossible to say such platitudes as "I know what you are going through"--how could I when I am not you, particularly I am not you who is the ego which suffers in a particular space and time? and when I stand here, forever distant and condemned to be separated from you?

What then do all these reassuring words mean or show? That I can can only imagine what you are going through by naturally basing such an imagination on my own experiences. I imagine what you are going through because I have had a similar experience, that is, because I believe yours and mine are similar experiences. Yet therein lies the ambiguity of sympathy: that I judge--by what right and authority?--that I know what you are going through because "I have been there and done that"--and even got the shirt to prove it.

Yet I know that my judgment will always be a hasty judgment. And I also shall never know or even imagine exactly what you are experiencing and thus I could never really sympathize.

We know this already: when we hear someone in despair, hidden behind our concern is our own fear of our own despair, our past ones and those to come. Thus I could never reach the other and his troubles; I only double or heighten my own emotions, use him as a mirror to see myself, and, sometimes, yes it does happen, leave the other who suffers with a nameless happiness (too strong, perhaps a "sigh of relief") that it is the other who is having difficulty--and not me; or what the untranslatable German word Shadenfreude indicates, as that happiness in the suffering of others. This is not a moral question or malice on my part; this is the law of phenomenology.

And the impossibility of going beyond my ego and subjectivity, my lived-experiences and the intentionality of my consciousness, or basically the problem of reaching the other was the very problem which the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, addressed in his late years and mature work (e.g., Cartesian Meditations).

Husserl's solution: what we have been doing, that is, to reason by analogy in the sense that what I experience (say, in the Meditations, having a body) could be imagined to be also what the other experiences (because I see the other having a body like mine). And according to the philosopher, by way of such an analogy, we could sym-pathize, feel with the other, or stir up in me (now this is still a problem) emotions which could mirror those in the others. But of course, even Husserl knew this was not enough, as other thinkers have already declared.

Thus, how is sympathy really possible? By reason (analogy) alone, it is impossible. Then how do I escape myself and reach the other? I simply must will it. Or as Jean-Luc Marion says, I must first love the other.


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