Author: Anisha Chandrasekar
Although sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, there is a profound difference in what they encapsulate. Sympathy refers to taking a personal engagement in someone’s life, accompanied by feelings of care, concern and a desire to see them better off. Whereas empathy takes this understanding to a whole new level by learning to fully share and take on someone’s perspective and world view (Burton 2015).
The way we shape our understanding of the indebted is heavily influenced by our personal biases and preconceptions when coming into the topic. It is understandable to feel a sense of distaste towards the indebted since they display an aspect of “dumb” decision making and more broadly, a defiance in the societal value we place on trust (Van der Does 2019). As such, it is indeed difficult to conceptualize and show compassion when approaching the issue from this distant outsider point-of-view. This is why sympathy and empathy are important tools in a multi-dimensional and experience-rich view of the struggle.
The Need for Sympathy
Sympathy acts as a crucial foundation for developing compassion. Whether or not you’re able to process the rationality behind someone’s decisions, at the very least it brings to light the sincere strain and toll which money struggles can induce. By giving recognition to the weight of individual experience, sympathy brings forth the much-needed dimensions of emotion and sensation. As moral beings that inherently value the protection of those in our communities, we acknowledge a social responsibility towards individuals and society at large to help the indebted (Van der Does 2019). Even if they are making “dumb decisions”, surely, they shouldn’t have to pay for it with their own well-being to the degree they are.
That being said, overstating the power of sympathy comes with the risk of glossing over the superficiality of our interpretation, which is ultimately quite flat at the end of the day. Purely viewing the indebted through sympathetic eyes can in fact over-exaggerate our differences and create greater distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ by “othering” the group altogether.
The Need for Empathy
This highlights the need for empathy. Empathy works to erase the value-judgments we hold against the indebted by fully inhibiting their perspective and seeing the world through their eyes. It involves a far deeper understanding of one’s situation through recognizing how one’s past has shaped their actions in the present. This comes highly interlinked to financial matters since one’s relationship with money is often tied to upbringing and internalized past experiences (Wong 2017). Through empathetic eyes, “dumb decisions” are no longer dumb since they are based on individually explicable perceptions of rationality.
With the goal of fully emulating and embodying one’s emotional and experiential obstacles, the issue with empathy is that it is hugely ambitious and arguably seldom reached. It comes based on the principle that we can fully detach ourselves from our own positionality and move past how that position inherently impedes the ability to fully grasp how someone’s struggles have shaped them.
That being said, due to the highly personal nature of debt struggles, both sympathy and empathy are hugely relevant and integral parts of learning about vulnerability. To fully comprehend the depth and breadth of the struggle takes time, patience and an openness towards the ambiguity of things unfamiliar to you. John Steinbeck strikingly captures this sentiment with the following phrase: “It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving” (Burton 2015).
Burton, N. (2015). “Empathy vs. Sympathy.” Psychology Today. At https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201505/empathy-vs-sympathy.
Wong, K. (2017). “How your Childhood Memories Affect your Relationship with Money.” Well and Good. At https://www.wellandgood.com/good-advice/how-childhood-impacts-money-habits/.
Van der Does. I. (2019). Presentation. Den Haag.