Sympathy vs. Empathy

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, sympathy is the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another.  Where as empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present.  There is a fine line between the two but it is quite distinguishable in many situations.  When a family member or loved one dies and your friend offers their condolences, they may have an idea as to how you feel or what you need to get through it but deep down, they have no idea how you truly feel even if they’ve gone through a similar situation.

Throughout the novel Home, by Toni Morrison, Frank and Cee go through many situations together, and separate, that no one outside of their own little world can full-heartedly relate to.  A majority of the people within the novel try to understand what they have gone through; Frank living life as a retired soldier being home and Cee as, basically, a hostage. But not one person can offer their truest, deepest sympathy, as they had not had the exact same life experiences Frank and Cee did.  At one point in the novel, Frank snaps at the author’s existence of a character and says, “You can’t imagine it because you weren’t there… you can’t describe the bleak landscape because you never saw it,” referring to the Korean War. He makes it clear that no one around him can feel the same way he does after experiencing such trauma and massive turning point in his life.  Frank returned home after the war and began a journey to Georgia to rescue his younger sister, Cee. He is greeted with the same racist actions and slurs when he returns that he had left behind months back when he went to war. 

On the other hand, Cee has experienced a great deal of sympathy later on in the novel since she went through something completely different than what an average day would consist of.  When Cee was fourteen years old, she ran off with her boyfriend of the time named Prince. He ended up running off and leaving her stranded to navigate through life with no guidance. She eventually finds a job as a medical assistant to a doctor named Beauregard Scott and is shown her in-house bedroom and office by the housekeeper, Sarah.  There is a sense of suspense at this point in the novel as readers begin to gain empathy for Cee and try to feel what she is going through during this rough patch in her life. Cee is blind to what is to come while working for this doctor and his wife; her being so young and naive after being babied by Frank all her life is a main cause for this situation occurring.  As a reader, we assumed Cee was going to go through something bad especially after having an insight to the types of books that were in her bedroom, most about eugenics and medical tests. It allowed us to gain empathy, and possibly sympathy, before any tests or procedures occurred which led to the thought of: will Frank return to his old life of rescuing his little sister even though he’s struggling to rescue himself?

Towards the end of the novel, we have seen the difference between the lives that Cee and Frank lived from when they were children “attached at the hip” and on to postwar when they had experienced two completely separate lives for their first time ever.  No character that was introduced throughout the novel had been able to offer sympathy for these two protagonists and all the struggles they overcame together and apart. Sometimes, offering empathy is the most one can do and still means just as much to someone who is struggling to find themselves.

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