I was sitting at an American-style cafe in Hanoi having hamburgers with a few Vietnamese English-language students and a couple other Americans. We were part of a partnership program with a local foreign language university, in which native English speakers taught and tutored Vietnamese students. We often received social invitations for outings from our students, and this was one such occasion. During the course of the meal, one of the Vietnamese students made a joke that none of us Americans understood. This had happened quite a bit during our time there. Though we’d made some half-hearted efforts to grasp one-another’s humor, we tended to simply smile benevolently and move on. I determined then and there that this time would be different!

“Ok, Ok. Back up. I want to understand this joke; I need to. We’re gonna talk this out until we understand why that was funny,” I said emphatically.

And so we circled back. At each point of ambiguity, we clarified. We defined terms and gave background and returned again and again to the simple question: Why is that funny? This went on for 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually the group of Vietnamese students were all exchanging puzzled glances, as were my group of American companions. We all began laughing at our utter futility in achieving any shared understanding of the humor of this joke—despite our determined efforts!

We had failed my challenge spectacularly and so resumed eating. Eventually someone brought up a new topic.

During my life I’ve been inculcated to value empathy over sympathy. To see it as superior. Sympathy, I’ve gathered, is some distant brand of pity, absent of real understanding. What we ought to practice is empathy; a personal involvedness of putting one’s self into the shoes of the other. I’m just not sure I agree with that anymore. I suspect sympathy is the more rare of the two, and certainly the more needed.

Every one of us is ‘pathic’; driven and delighted by our inner tides of pathos, our feelings, emotions, passions! Often we struggle to understand even our own pathos, and, if we’ll admit, struggle to really understand others—even others we really should understand like spouses and siblings and close friends. We muse in their absence, Why on earth would they do that? Empathy, at least as it is commonly understood, turns out to be a veritable impossibility, and we may be well-served to laugh at its comical elusiveness. It is sympathy on which we must depend; a kind attitude toward those we find all but incomprehensible.

In fact, the Spanish word for nice is simpatico. Can I treat you well even if I don’t “get” you? Or have we forgotten how to do this? I would go so far as to call this a national crisis.

I have a friend who works with ex offenders (released convicts), and recidivism is a daunting challenge. He tells of the incredulity often expressed by outside observers at what they view as blatantly self-destructive patterns of behavior. But my friend often says, “What we need to understand is that everybody’s decisions make sense to them.” And so they do.

Sympathy is a bridge spanning these misty gulfs of understanding. It is a way we may stand together in the mist over troubled waters, admitting how opaquely our respective pathos recede into thick banks of fog; even smog. Stand long enough upon its span, and you may steal a precious glimpse of commonality. We call this understanding. Then again, you might not. But how to make sense of our own inhumane pathologyshould we detonating such bridges? Simpatico means nice. Nice means simpatico.

True understanding of any kind results from loops of feedback. Like stitches, these loops of thread draw two sides together. And, like stitches, we feel the prick. Pathos can mean feeling, and, as such, it can also mean suffering. We don’t like to suffer. Simpatico means nice, but it also means “to suffer with.”

Empathy means “to suffer in.” It is this in-ness makes us tribal. We’re all pathologists; that is to say, we’re all trying to figure out our suffering. It’s easy for one group to glom together in their empathy and agree that this pathos is “their fault.” We stand, as it were, looking out over the foggy ravine and seethe. Maybe the threatening fog “out there” bears too much resemblance to that threatening fog “in here”—that damned fog veiling the hostility I harbor toward myself. Maybe we even need some self-sympathy?

Or are we patho-illogical?

It’s lonely. On a micro-level, we’re all looking warily at that bridge spanning one to another; ones to others. There is no us or them, it’s just everybody! Is it any wonder Hemingway’s fine novel about the conflicted bridge-dynamiter Robert Jordan should be called For Whom the Bell Tolls? We’re looking at that bridge wondering whether we want whatever it is on the other side finding its way across. We’re clutching our explosives. Am I talking about the bridge over the gulf to others or to self? Good question.

Our misunderstandings, however ridiculous or infuriating, signal a need of that feedback loop. Estrangement signals a refusal of suffering—a rejection of that pain of connecting. The suffering involved in connection signals commitment—the possibility of understanding maintained. Maintained is the operative word. Maybe the real pain—the real pathos—stems from our dismay over how hard mutual understanding comes and how easily it slips away.

South African novelist JM Coetze portrayed a tool with which to address this dilemma in his The Lives of Animals,

There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination.

Here’s the kicker: when you are sympathetically imaginative you are likely very wrong. We are, of course, employing creative license in an effort to “think ourselves into the being of another.” It is folly if we would demand factuality from this, for it is imaginative in nature. But it is also sympathetic in nature—straining boundlessly in an effort to draw forth a human kindness toward the other from our self. If we’re perfectly honest, aren’t we all too often employing an antipathetic imagination? I sure am. And we’re just as wrong there too! Only that makes us doubly wrong, because we’re wrong in interpretation and also wrong in intent. We end up wrong in outcome also. I want to stop being this wrong—this kind of wrong!

There is a potency either way. The Greek word for power (dunamis) is actually the derivative of both dynamic and dynamite.

I recall with wonder how my imaginative efforts toward sympathy have snipped the blue wires (or is it the red?) of such ticking time bombs. Imagining a world where that person across the foggy gulf is just as confused and afraid and cautiously hopeful as I am does something inside me. It really does. It allows me to see further through the haze, or maybe stop squinting. I guess it represents what I ultimately hope is going on in the foggy envelopes around me called “people.”

Jesus told us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. How can such love or prayer spring from anything but sympathetic imagination? Maybe that’s all these feelings and entreaties are; just imagining something redemptive; crossing that bridge, pulling that stitch. Jesus’ life is often called the gospel or “the good news.” St Paul told us this good news had great power—dunamis. Can you recall what Jesus prayed while being mocked and having nails driven into his body? “Father, forgive them. They have no idea what they’re doing.” They probably did and didn’t know, but he prayed from the sympathetic part.

Sometimes they really are over there with stones and spears and thorns waiting to betray you with a kiss. And sometimes we’re supposed to let them do their worst. Of course, sometimes they’ve got no such arsenal. Is it worth the risk? Not a few throughout history have been found to set down their sticks and stones and hurtful words when presented with such risky sympathetic overtures. There’s only one way to find out.

There really aren’t any empathy cards, are there? There are whole sections of sympathy cards, but they’re usually not the funny ones. They probably should be. Maybe we’re all just sitting across the table from those whom previous generations regarded as enemies, eating hamburgers, and creating our own, new jokes; jokes about how we can’t understand one another nor one another’s jokes. It’s funny in its own right. Probably funnier—and sadder—than whatever we were futilely trying explain at the get-go. We can all agree that we wish this was easier. That’s the point. That’s just the thing!

I think our conceptions of sympathy are a bit misnomered. We’re all humans here and, as it turns out, our pathos is quite similar. But we lack the ability to convey as much to each other.  Seen this way, empathy and sympathy just blur together like ink splashed with tears; tears of sorrow and joy, pain and laughter. That’s probably the troubled water over which the bridge extends. It’s probably the mist, too, if we’re being honest. Whatever we call it, we’re all in this together. Or at least we can chose to be. Or not.

If one thing is crystal clear these days, it is that understanding is terribly hard to come by. There are vast populations whom we find hopelessly enigmatic. Would you let that solitary fact write out your tragic script? Could such a decision be termed anything short of pathetic?

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

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