Concepts

On Empathy

Sometimes I struggle with the distinction between empathy and sympathy. I suppose one way of looking at it would be that empathy is when you feel what another person is feeling, whereas sympathy is more like you care about what another person is feeling, but you can’t experience it yourself because you don’t know what it’s like.

Living with my disability, I’ve experienced both sympathy and empathy. I am certainly thankful for the friends I’ve made along the way who happen to live with cerebral palsy. Of course, our stories aren’t exactly the same since we are different people and we are affected in different ways, but it sure is affirming to have folks in your life who truly understand what living with CP is like–who can empathize. Who nod and listen when I discuss things like spasticity, aches and pains, fatigue, poor balance, and high muscle tone, just to name a few. When they “get” the little things, too: why I can’t carry items when using my crutches, or why I flat out refuse to take the subway alone.

There’s also those who sympathize. Like my best friend, who is non-disabled, and who’s been at my side since I was about five years old. She understands my relationship with my body without an explanation from me, even though she can’t necessarily experience it herself. She values my feelings, and definitely cares about them.

There’s also my mother, who is non-disabled, but has a deep comprehension of the way my body functions. For example, she knows how much energy it takes for me to just get through the day doing regular stuff. She allows me time to rest, but also pushes me when I need it or even when I request it. She also knows that sometimes I have to ask for help, and that’s OK. I shouldn’t be ashamed to do so.

I’d like to just mention pity in comparison, which is in my opinion worse than a lack of understanding, since it implies that being disabled is something to mourn or feel badly about. Speaking for myself, I’ve never sought pity. More often than not I will seek compassion instead.

There have been people in my life who haven’t shown me sympathy or empathy, too. Like the toxic person who once barked orders at me to walk while I was recovering from my last surgery; another person who didn’t understand why I don’t take the subway by myself and was dismissive of my concerns; those who try to dictate my limits and abilities as if they know what my body can do or what it can not. This is OK. I mean, it’s not, but what I want to say is that sympathy and empathy from others is not something I need or require to feel secure with myself. I am aware of the decisions I am making, like going back to the gym, and doing physical therapy…and that such choices are just as valid as those made to fill my spirit and my soul…like writing this blog or working on my stories.

Which brings me to another point: I am all for people reading this blog. I think that’s obvious. Let me be clear, though: it is not my responsibility to educate others on what it means to live while physically disabled. It is not on me to carry that burden. I am not a beacon or poster child. I’m a writer who happens to be disabled, and who is fulfilled by voicing my life experiences. I do write this blog for myself because I want to, admittedly in the hopes that it will make me a better writer. More importantly, though, I write this blog because it’s fun.

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