sympathy—feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
A few months ago, I was playing a game. It required running up to another person, reading information off the card I carried and having that person tell me which person to go to next. The goal was to get as many “packets” through the “network” as possible.
At the end of the game, a guy came up to me and stated, “You are very empathetic.”
I asked why he thought that. He said I was the only one who played the game by memorizing the information on my card, holding my card so that the other person could read it while I spoke the information.
I said I did it because it would get me through the maze faster. And because some people are better at interpreting information they read, and others are better at hearing it.
He called me empathetic.
I was thinking about what he said while “walking the dog” this morning. While I was talking to The Archivist on a corner, we saw two bicyclists going through an intersection get cut off by a car turning right. She didn’t stop. She didn’t look. She was so focused on herself, where she was going, and what she was doing that she didn’t give a shit about anyone who was biking, or running, or “walking the dog”. I stared her down as she drove by and yelled, “Yeah, ’cause waving is going to make it all better, fucker!”
I run into these people a lot while “walking the dog”. And I understand that they are probably late to work. Probably by their own doing, although they happily blame their alarm clock or some other physical device rather than their ability to understand their own waking patterns and adjust for them.
She is the reason why, when I’m driving, I stop at the intersection before the crosswalk. I look both ways, then inch my way into the crosswalk if I think I can make a right turn without blocking a pedestrian or biker. She is the reason that I don’t turn into the bike lane to make a right turn unless I’m sure I’ll get through before a bicyclist shows up. She is the reason I have to anticipate people like her when I’m on a bicycle or running. She is the reason that when Perl and I are at the entrance to the complexes, I make sure the coast is clear before walking across.
But sometimes, we get halfway across and some jackass comes speeding up. If they were driving the speed limit, Perl and I would be safely across before they reach the entrance, but because they aren’t, I’m usually hidden from their view by redwood trees. So I quickly move Perl to my left side so that if they don’t slam on their brakes and stop in time they will hit me instead of Perl.
I do it because I want to save Perl. But not all my intentions are good. I also want them to hit me instead of my dog because I will make a bigger dent in their wallet. Maybe they will feel that, since they don’t feel empathy.