‘Sympathy’ is defined as ‘ability of a person to share the feelings of another especially in sorrows and troubles. In another context, sympathy is described as a relationship between persons and things where whatever affects one person, affects the other person, as well’. In essence, Sympathy is a specific mental attitude of agreement in feelings and emotions on the part of an individual with respect to those of another.
Sympathy in a person arises out of the capability of that person to understand another person’s surrounding situations, circumstances, point of views, thoughts and feelings, the state of mind of which is commonly known as empathy. Empathy and sympathy are closely linked with each other and both follow the same path.
Depending upon contexts, Sympathy has been interpreted in many ways: As per these interpretations, sympathy is sharing of emotions and sorrows of another person; sympathy is harmony of feelings between person and person; sympathy is mutual affection arising out of congeniality; sympathy is a condition of behaviour similar to that of another person’s behaviour; sympathy is feeling of loyalty and support for a cause or an idea. There is yet another context which relates to physiology where sympathy is mutual relationship between two organs.
The word ‘sympathy’ is said to have its origin in the Latin word ‘sympathia’ and the Greek word ‘sumpatheia’: These words stand for the mental approach of one human being to understand the distress of another human being and then to react to the distress of the other with a helping hand. The understanding and the reaction of the person emerge out of concern for the well-being of the other person which is well connected with the past or present experiences which the sympathizer has undergone.
Sympathy extends to other emotional states also where distresses and pains may not necessarily be the prime concerns. As for example, take the case of parents: They give total attention and care for the wellness of their children. However, the maternal-paternal sympathy for their off springs may have to be viewed as instinctive. Such instinctive sympathetic behaviour prevails even among animals and birds in the initial stages of birth and growth of their off springs. However, the so-called sympathy of animals, birds and even humans slowly disappears as the off springs grow up in passage of time. No doubt, in a larger sense, the parental care and concerns may be termed as sympathy, but in precise terms, it is inborn behaviour trait which is not akin to sympathy felt in distresses and pains of others because sympathy is an acquired emotional behaviour, acquired after the birth of the living organism.
Sympathy develops in human brain through temporary nerve connections called conditioned reflexes. Neuroscience explains that a conditioned reflex is formed as a result of repetitive interactions of the sensory centres with stimuli emanating from environs. There are situations which make an individual to undergo experiences: These can be diseases, accidents, painful situations at home or in the neighborhood and turbulence of various nature. These conditions stimulate the sensory centres of the individual and repeat occurrence of the conditions ends in formulation of reflexes in the brain connected with the sensory centre in the brain. A person who himself has undergone severe pains when comes in contact with another who is in acute distress of pains will get moved deeply by the incident. That feeling of the individual for the other suffering person is a critical evidence of sympathy of the person concerned. The sympathy may force the person to do whatever is possible to help and thereby to alleviate the distress of the other person. Sympathy may even reach out to philanthropic movements, institutions and hospitals which devote their services for the cause of the distressed.
Crucial ingredient involved in the development of the conditioned reflex of sympathetic attitude is attention to the needs of others which may be either individuals or group of individuals. Unless a person diverts attention to the surroundings the individual cannot have even an element of sympathy in his behavioral attitude. Persons who are selfish and inward looking and do not give any attention to what is happening to others, to what is going on in the neighborhood and the society and do not recognize the needs of victims, can never feel sympathy for anything and anybody. It is because distractions limit sensory experience related to the situations as a result of which brain fails to build conditioned nerve connections for effective reactions. That is why attention becomes crucial for the development of sympathy. The attention to the needs of others enables individuals to experience the feelings of the sufferers and thereby it helps building up sympathy.
There is another area of sympathy which relate to the powerful helping the vulnerable. Discarded children, elderly who are disowned by their family and relatives and abandoned sick persons are examples of this category where those who can afford extend helping hand to the needy. Similarly, geographic proximity like neighborhood, citizenship of the country, racial and religious considerations generate feeling of sympathy. Such sympathy is based on the belief that people within the same group are inter-related and inter-connected with each other.
Sincere sympathy of a person or group of persons always follows action aimed at extending solace to the needy. In addition to the action, communicating the feeling of sympathy to others who are in dire need of the help is as important as the action itself. Sharing the sorrows by expression of soothing words, by facial expressions, by touch and occasional visits to inquire about the condition of the sufferer will lend enormous relief to the sufferers. That is where the first system of communication through signs and symbols and the second system of communication by spoken or written words become crucial and relevant in matters of sympathy and sympathetic behaviour.
Researchers are reported to have found that canines and other lower animals too feel and express sympathy. The findings appear to be of false premise. It is common experience that when hungry stray dogs happen to pass by the vicinity of domestic pet dog’s habitat, the pet dog violently reacts to the presence of the stray dog with loud screams. It jumps over the stray dog, bites and drives the stray dog away from the vicinity. Similar is the behaviour even among the stray dogs when they face their physical and biological needs. Had there been a little bit of sympathy, the pet dog might have behaved in a better way and tried to help out the stray dog with love and compassion. The reported findings of the researchers seem to be untrue: It is basically wrong to conclude that the nerve cells of lower animals like canines are capable of building the reflexes for sympathetic behaviour.
Among the modern political and social scenario, many a time, vested interests utilize fake sympathy for the cause of popularity, influence and malicious gains. Even in such situations, the individuals or group of individuals who get help and solace for their distress remain beneficiaries of sympathy irrespective of whether the benefactors or the helpers are fakes or not.
Humanity the world over today faces enormous magnitude of turbulence and destruction. Religions, races, castes, communities, faiths, beliefs, rituals and related practices have divided the human race: Mutual distrusts and enmity have become the order of the day. Despite all these, the mankind survives and go ahead with tremendous achievements and progress in every area of existence. The major chunk of contribution for the survival and existence of humanity is Sympathy. But for sympathy, human race would have met the dooms-day cataclysm long before the dawn of civilization.